PAWTUCKET – So how do you build a winning high school football program? Tolman coach Dave Caito certainly can describe the process.
“Winning breeds success,” the 10th-year head coach was saying on Tuesday afternoon. “When I came to Tolman, we had 25 kids in our entire program. Over the years, we have gotten better and gone to three Super Bowls in the past five years. We now have 70 players in the program, 45 of them on the varsity and 25 on the freshman team. Half of them seem to have come up through the Darlington Braves’ youth program. The kids learn how to win with the Braves and they bring that attitude with them to Tolman.
“More kids want to come out for football now,” Caito added. “We get kids from other sports who want to come out for football. Sometimes, it is an athlete from the track squad. Once, we converted a volleyball player, Corey Parker, into a football player. As long as the kid is an athlete, we can teach him to play football. The one thing they do need is to be tough enough to play football. This is a rough sport.”
Caito has changed the image of Tolman football over the years. The Tigers have gone from a big and physical team that lacked speed to a sleek, sports car squad that revs its motor and blows past opponents, beating them with a complex offensive scheme that relies on precise blocking patterns and speedy backs bursting through holes that only stay open for a split-second.
“My first team was filled with big kids,” he recalled. “Now we have speed to burn. This team reminds me of the Shea teams that Dino (Campopiano) puts together. Every team we play is bigger than us. I think our biggest player is Jarrod Battersby, who weighs around 225 pounds. The rest of our line has players who are 160, 170 pounds. I’d rather coach an athletic kid who is leaner and thinner and can move off the ball quickly. Everybody is bigger than us but as long as we are tougher, that’s what matters.”
Tolman’s team speed begins with quarterback Joselito Knapp, a 135-pound junior who runs like a sprinter, cuts like an elusive halfback, and bounces up from hard tackles with the kind of resiliency Caito expects from his players.
“Josey is probably our fastest player, followed by (running back) Ousame Samb and Shawn Taylor,” Caito said.
The Tigers take a 6-0 record into Friday night’s regular season finale at home against Toll Gate. They are the No. 1 seed heading into the Division II playoffs that commence on the weekend of Nov. 12-13.
“I think we ready for the playoffs right now,” Caito admitted. “I tell the kids the only team that can beat us is ourselves. We hurt ourselves last week against Ponaganset with a fumble at their goal line and an interception when we were trying to score. But we came back in the second half and scored three touchdowns.
“We did the same thing against West Warwick, playing (well) only half the game,” Caito added. “But this team refuses to lose. Against Cranston East, we fell behind 21-6 and came back to lose by one point (against a Division I team). If we had a kicker, the outcome might have been different.”
Tolman’s regular kicker has been missing all season but will rejoin the squad for the playoffs, filling the most noticeable hole in the squad’s arsenal. Very few teams can expect to win a Super Bowl without a place-kicker. The competition in Division II is too even to give away three or four points per game due to the lack of a kicker.
The upcoming playoffs are getting more interesting as the eight-team bracket fills out. Tolman and Woonsocket will be the top seeds in their respective halves of the bracket. St. Raphael Academy is the third seed in Tolman’s bracket and could meet the Tigers in the semifinals, assuming the Saints can find a way to win their first quarterfinal round contest.
Caito and his staff are focused on finishing the regular season with a decisive win over Toll Gate. The Tigers then will turn their full attention to the playoffs.
“Our program has come a long way in 10 years,” Caito said. “Our coaching staff was sitting around, talking, the other day and somebody mentioned how we could be heading to our fourth Super Bowl in six years. That would be quite an accomplishment, getting there again this season.”
The Tigers are not a lock to reach the Super Bowl. So far, though, none of their six league opponents have found the key to beating them.
“The playoffs are going to be tough,” Caito said, “but I think we’re ready for them.”