PAWTUCKET – There were concerns, to be sure. There always are whenever you’re dealing with a tense situation akin to the high school football episode that has resulted in the reclassification of expectations for Tolman in 2014.
From the perspective of Tolman Principal Christopher Savastano, the chief worry was that those student-athletes and coaches deemed at fault would be tasked with playing next season with no shot at qualifying for the playoffs. Those fears were confirmed Tuesday morning when the Rhode Island Principals’ Committee on Athletics denied Tolman’s appeal to lift its one-year postseason ban.
Savastano received the news in a phone call from R.I. Interscholastic League Executive Director Tom Mezzanotte. Less than 24 hours prior, Savastano appeared before the PCOA where he made it a point to extol all the positives that have taken place in the hallways at the Exchange Street campus since becoming principal in July 2012.
The Principals’ Committee granted no leniency with regards to the on-field skirmish that marred the conclusion of Tolman’s 54-0 non-league victory over Hope on Nov. 15 at Pariseau Field. The incident, which by all accounts was resolved in quick fashion, was deemed volatile enough to warrant harshly punitive discipline.
“From the vantage point of the Hope coach (Michael Gibbons), and it happened right near his sideline, most of the players he saw were actually pulling kids away from the pile,” said Savastano.
After Savastano said his peace, he exited the Rhode Island College room, and the PCOA voted unanimously to uphold what was originally decreed a day or two after a November meeting with officials at both schools.
“Chris did a great job with his presentation, but the committee felt that the number of issues that have developed in the past few years with regard to players entering the field of play and fighting is a great concern,” Mezzanotte said. “A message had to be sent.”
“It’s certainly disappointing, but I’m a teacher at heart. I think the most important thing is for our kids to use this as a teachable moment as far as our expectations for them on the athletic fields,” Savastano expressed. “They represent our school and the community and how extremely important it is for them to abide by all the rules, especially those rules that pertain to safety and sportsmanship.”
How Tolman got to the point where postseason eligibility has been removed from the equation long before the first league game is far from simple and straightforward. The head official for the game in question passed on what happened to Jim Ashley, the commissioner of officials for the Southeastern Massachusetts Football Officials Association (SEMFOA) and primary overseer of R.I. football officiating.
Ashley then informed Mezzanotte, who requested the principal, athletic director, and head football coach at Tolman and Hope appear before select members of the PCOA. All of the essential personnel from both sides sat in the same room.
“One of the arguments we presented was questioning whether a game like that should have even been scheduled, a Division I team (Tolman) versus a Division IV team (Hope),” said Savastano. “That’s how we ended up in a situation where the score ended up 54-0.”
A few days passed before the RIIL came back with its findings. For Tolman, the three football players who Savastano felt were “out of line and committed the most egregious offense” would remain suspended for the Thanksgiving game against Shea, a decision the league agreed with. The second sanction was a $200 fine with the third consisting of probation for the 2014 season.
The fourth sanction – no shot at the playoffs – was what Tolman sought to overturn. Hope did not have any players suspended, though the program was also assessed with a $200 fine, probation and a one-year playoff ban.
Hope has already served its playoff sentence. At the time of the incident, the Blue Wave were in contention in Division IV – they ended up in a four-way tie for the fourth and final playoff spot, which was awarded to Scituate.
In Tolman’s case, the Tigers went winless in eight Division I tries, a record that Mezzanotte admitted was the reason the playoff ban was imposed for the following season.
“If both teams were eligible last year, then they would have been ineligible,” said Mezzanotte. “However, because Tolman was already ineligible based on its record, they would be ineligible next year.”
This act of suspending a future team from playoff competition based solely on events taking place during prior competition is believed to be uncharted territory for the RIIL and PCOA. Mezzanotte defended the decision by saying it was important to send a message to the rest of the state that there will be serious consequences should fights ensue.
“It was a matter of significance with regard to how we address this with the coaches in all their preseason meetings. This was a priority and we wanted to make sure that appropriate supervision was maintained before, during and after games,” he expressed. “When I say proper supervision, I mean having control of your athletes in the event of any kind of on-field altercation.”
The news comes the same week when the Tigers officially returned to Division II after posting a 3-13 record against Division I foes the past two seasons. The program’s struggles were not revisited when Savastano stood before the entire PCOA board on Monday. Instead, he cited how suspensions at Tolman High have been drastically reduced and made reference to a recent survey where 71 percent of students felt comfortable enough to reach out to an adult in the building “in a time of need.”
“I was trying to emphasis that we have great kids in this building and promote the progress we’ve made,” said Savastano. “Unfortunately, my peers voted to uphold the sanctions. I have to respect their opinions and do appreciate that they gave me due process to advocate for the Tolman community.”
Asked if felt Tolman was being singled out, Savastano responded, “I wouldn’t say that we’re being made an example of. Maybe it was just poor timing on our part that we committed this type of unsportsmanlike conduct at a time in the country where this is becoming more and more concerning.”
As for the tall order that awaits Tolman head coach Dave Caito this season, that of keeping his players on task and motivated in the face of overwhelming odds, Savastano feels, “Every time the kids in this school have been presented with a challenge, they seem to rise to the occasion. I am cautiously confident and optimistic that we will continue to do that. They will play hard next year and enjoy just playing and being competitive and representing our school.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03