PAWTUCKET — Division I boys soccer has been dominated by powerhouse La Salle – and to a lesser extend the large suburban public schools – for the last 20 years.
But something changed in the fall of 2018 when Tolman crashed the party, went undefeated during the regular season and then claimed the state title over the Rams thanks to a last-second goal from Aliou Sissoko.
Since that victory, the Tigers proved they weren’t a flash in the pan. Even though they graduated back-to-back Gatorade Players of the Year in Luis Blanco and Roy Barrios, the Tigers are back in the state final for a third straight season. The No. 5 Tigers trek down to Johnston High School Saturday at 12:30 p.m. to face No. 3 South Kingstown for the state title and Tolman coach Dan Silva knows what this game means to a group of seniors that have left an indelible mark on the program and the city.
“This is a big, big deal for these kids and I don’t think these kids realize what we’ve accomplished to be in the finals three years in a row – a city school doing it,” Silva said during Friday’s practice at Max Read Field.
“This game [Saturday] is something I want more than anything else. It’s something I want to win more than any game I’ve ever coached at Tolman High School. It would put the bow on the career of this group of seniors and just the magnitude of having two finals wins in three years at Tolman High School. This would mean so much.”
Tolman (6-3-1 Division I) enters the final playing their best soccer of the truncated season. The Tigers had such an up-and-down regular season that if Cumberland hadn’t been in quarantine when the playoffs started, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs. Instead, Tolman earned a spot and turned into best defensive team in Division I.
Led by senior goalie Nelton Semedo, who is starting in his third straight state title final, the Tigers won shootouts over No. 4 Hendricken and No. 1 Portsmouth after playing scoreless soccer for 90 minutes. In Thursday night’s semifinal at No. 2 North Kingstown, Sissoko, who is also starting his third straight state final, and David Torres scored in a 2-1 victory.
“The kids are playing with heart, they really want to win and they’re really connected right now,” Silva said. “Maybe we were thinking too much in those first couple of games and we finally found our identity. Every year we come out with this mentality that we want to knock it around and show off our skill. There’s always a moment in the year where something clicks and we realize that’s not going to be our identity.”
This year, that moment came after a 4-2 defeat to Cumberland on Oct. 24. Since that game, the Tigers have allowed just two goals in the last 500 minutes and one of those goals – Portsmouth’s winner in the regular-season finale – came off a set piece.
South Kingstown (6-1-2) enters the contest on a six-game unbeaten run. The Rebels are in the third straight final in the last six seasons, but both times they ran into an undefeated La Salle team and lost. The Rebels made sure they wouldn’t see the Rams in the final when they went to Providence Wednesday night and beat the No. 1 seed, 3-1, thanks to a pair of goals from Matt May.
“Coach [Adam Howarth] is very organized and always prepares his teams very, very well,” Silva said. “They’re going to be very physical and play tough and play the type of steal they’ve always played from when I was in high school until now. I think we have an idea of what to expect. They’re going to be a combination of the teams we’ve played with more skill and physicality and pace. It’s going to take our best effort.”
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