PAWTUCKET — Dating back to the 2000 campaign, when it captured its first R.I. Division II championship, Tolman High has been one of the premier programs not only against its divisional brethren but statewide as well.
Under veteran mentor Neil Nachbar's direction, the Tigers have earned numerous league titles and four state crowns, with two collected over the past three years.
In that time, only one program has eclipsed that mark. That would be Mount St. Charles, which has five, and because of that success now plays – and excels – in Division I.
Tolman has continued its winning trend this season, though due to an Interscholastic League realignment now competes in Division II-East. In that league, Nachbar and Co. have managed a perfect 11-0 league mark and sit in the familiar first-place spot.
It also used to be that Tolman dominated rival Shea, and – since it entered the fray two years ago – St. Raphael.
Times, however, may be changing as the Raiders and Saints have ever so quietly racked up more victories than usual.
In fact, Tolman's main challengers for the II-East crown this spring come from this mill city itself. Both St. Raphael and Shea have registered stellar 7-2 campaigns thus far, and they're tied for second.
Unusual as it may seem, Nachbar is reveling in his neighborhood opponents' success, the reason being he believes it will only improve his own squad's play.
“This is only (the) Saints' second year in the league; they didn't have a JV team last year or this year, so I didn't think anyone really expected them to have a winning record in only their second season,” he noted. “In our second year, back in '98, we were 9-10, and I was elated at being around .500.
“I don't know their coach (Justin Amaral), but I know he played at Warwick Vets and in college,” he added. “I do know he's a young, enthusiastic coach, and we haven't had many of them in the entire state over the past several years. We haven't had much of a turnover.
“Still, whenever you get new blood in there, it's a good thing for the league. This year, we beat both (Shea and SRA) in four games during our first go-around, and we've swept everyone else (excepting North Smithfield on Wednesday night during a 3-1 triumph), so there's something to be said for that.
“Certainly in your second season, you expect to be better than you were in the first, but (SRA is) playing at over a .750 clip. As for Shea, it had a losing record last season, but they've got quite a few returning players this year, all of whom are very athletic. They've got more height, with three or four guys who are pretty tall.
“This is the most athletic team I've seen Shea have in a very long time.”
The Tolman and Shea programs began way back in 1997, and it's obvious the former has seen more success. The Tigers likewise have never lost to the Raiders in all that time, despite the fact they've met twice a season ever since.
According to Nachbar, who is uncanny at remembering who did what and when, the only time Tolman and its city rival have come close to meeting in the playoffs came in 1999.
“North Smithfield and Shea were in the Division II semifinals with us and La Salle, and Shea had to face La Salle, which beat them,” he recalled. “If they had been able to pull of an upset of (the Rams), we would've faced Shea for the state championship. It also would have been the only time two teams from Pawtucket would've battled for the title.
“Now both (the) Saints and Shea are right there, so who knows? Maybe the time has come that three teams from the city will make the playoffs and (two) will get to the (title) match.”
If the Raiders do make it, they will have done so with an unusual style of play. In a recent clash with usually-strong Central, at least two players were seen either heading or kicking the ball to keep it alive. At least half the time, they were successful.
“For some reason, (SHS head coach Christina Daily) always draws a lot of soccer players, so you will see some uncharacteristic volleyball plays,” Nachbar stated. “But rules indicate that you're allowed to use any part of the body (to keep it airborne). It's not something I as a coach would encourage, but because of those players' backgrounds, instinctively, they feel very comfortable using their feet or heads. To this point, Shea's been able to use it to their advantage.
“We've played against them and we've seen it happen, and it's so unusual. It does take your mind off the task at hand, and I've noticed that with our guys. We'll be watching them instead of setting up the way we should.
“Then again, I always root for Shea – unless they're playing our team,” he continued with a smile. “I want them to win against any other opponent, and I have a good reason. I graduated from Shea in '88.”
As for Amaral, he admitted his kids have “blown my mind” as to their claiming seven straight matches after losing the initial two – naturally to the Tigers (3-1) and Raiders (3-2).
“I really think the success comes from the guys; they just have that inner drive to play well,” he offered. “I don't work at the school, so all of the recruiting comes from them. They'll approach basketball players or other athletes and ask them if they want to come out and play.
“We only have about four kids who played last year; that's because we had eight graduate, so the kids we have this season have been recruited by the players. The (experienced upperclassmen) have told me
that, because of the improvement they experienced last year, they wanted to make an effort to get more kids out, and work hard to get even better.”
Amaral indicated the overall team attitude has been amazing. It stems from guys such as senior middle blocker Rafael Gama, a foreign exchange student from Brazil who averages 18 kills and 11 blocks per match; fellow co-captain/outside hitter Ben Kinch, who he labels an “outstanding digger”; junior middle blocker Graham Lynch; sophomore Jacob Bourski; and junior Enrique Castaneda-Pineda.
“There's only word to describe their worth ethic: Incredible, and I love it,” he laughed. “These guys actually volunteer to come in and practice on the weekends. We also had a couple of guys who asked me if I could open the gym on Easter Sunday because we had a match the next day, and they wanted to get ready for it.
“This past Monday, we had a match against Scituate at (SRA's) Alumni Hall, but there was some odor in the building, so it was postponed,” he added. “They thought it may have been a gas leak. The guys still came up to me and asked if they could practice.
“Their sheer dedication, it's blown my mind. I mean, before we stepped up on the gym floor for our first workout, the captains had already organized three or four captains' practices. I've seen in our style of play. Our passing has been our big overall improvement; our timing is pretty good. We're passing the ball up to the net for the set and the resulting kill.”
When asked about being the “new kid on the block” and having to battle two older programs, Amaral answered this way: “There's definitely a drive to beat those other teams. Tolman's a great program that's been there for a while. That's why, if we don't have a match, some of the kids will go over to Tolman to watch them play.
“It's because they love the game; there's some scouting, yes, but they also like watching good volleyball,” he added. “They also want to pick up a few tips just by analyzing the way they play.
“I still think our big rivalry is with Shea, given the fact that Tolman's won four state titles. Last year, Shea won one match, and we won one. I feel like we can compete with both of them, but the guys deem Shea more as their rival. A lot of the guys have friends on the team, and Shea always seems to bring out the best in us.
“It always goes to four or five games, so it seems more like a pride thing.”
The Raiders' standouts include senior tri-captains William Baah, Austin Vangel and Ivanildo DosSantos, not to mention sophomore Helder Gomes; seniors Oumar Baro and Jose Torres; and junior Livio Verissimo.
As for the Tigers, they have oodles of talent in the senior class, among them Denzel DePina, Eric Silveira, Jason Aguilera, Keanu Perry, Kelvin Reyes, Austin Le and Tyler Harry, and they lead younger athletes like juniors Kenny Vieira and Alben Chingo.
Nachbar admits the desire to outduel Shea is deeper and more ingrained in the minds of his players, mainly because the rivalry encompasses all sports.
“Shea's a team that, regardless of record, you always get up for because the guys want to show they're the best in the city, if not the state,” he noted. “It brings out a sense of school pride and competitiveness that is unique to that matchup.
“We've had opponents we've exchanged wins with over the years (during the regular season), and those who we have more of a competitive rivalry with, but there's something special about playing another school from Pawtucket. Personally, I love coaching against my alma mater.”
Stated Amaral: “I really think the fact all three Pawtucket teams are doing well will elevate high school volleyball in the city. It should create more interest. I mean, we're a small school (in terms of numbers), and we don't have a large squad. Tolman's got a lot of players, and Shea has more than we do.
“Everyone wants to play for a winning program, and now we've got three in Pawtucket. The fact we're all doing well can only produce more interest from the kids who are on the bubble, 'Should I play volleyball, or shouldn't I?' Maybe that will help them decide.”