Sports editor emeritus
PAWTUCKET – Tolman High enhanced its playoff hopes on Wednesday with a solid 2-0 upset victory over Hope High on Wednesday evening at McKinnon-Alves Field.
Ibrahima Male and Sebastian Estrada netted first-half goals for the Tigers and goalie Adam Ghazal took care of the rest, making 16 saves, several of the spectacular variety, to keep Hope (now 5-3-1) off the scoreboard.
“Adam is the best goalie I’ve seen so far this season,” Tolman coach Jack Couto admitted after the match ended. “If not for Adam, Hope probably would have had four goals.”
The Tigers, who improved to 3-6-0 in Division I with the win, took advantage of an aggressive Hope team that likes to push the action, getting Male and Estrada behind the Blue Wave’s defense and into 1-on-1 situations with goalkeeper Dave Belony. Both Male and Estrada beat the charging Belony to balls at the top of the box and deftly booted shots into the net from 10 yards out.
“That No. 11 (Male) is a very skilled player,” Hope coach Al DiGregorio said. “He just stopped the ball and tapped it past our goalie. Our kids were trying to power the ball too much. We wanted to kick it through the net instead of using our skill to beat their goalie.”
Ghazal, a three-year starter, is the backbone of the Tolman team. His value became apparent in a Division I quarterfinal playoff matchup last season against powerful Barrington. The Tigers held a 2-1 lead when Ghazal suffered a serious knee injury and left the game. Barrington rallied for a 3-2 win.
The Tigers lost several key players from last year’s team and got off to a slow start in league play this season. Wednesday’s victory over Hope is a sign that Tolman, which has won two in a row, can still make the playoffs and cause some trouble.
“We knew that Hope is an aggressive team that wants to attack and press the action,” Couto said. “We thought there would be an opportunity for us to get some counters going. And we did.”
A 2-0 lead is huge in soccer. Once Tolman got its second goal, the Tigers used their steady defense and acrobatic goalie to deny numerous Hope scoring chances. Ghazal blocked two point-blank shots with what amounted to kick saves. In a second-half sequence, Hope powered a shot off the crossbar above Ghazal’s head. The ball bounced back into play in front of the goalie, who then stopped a strong shot from five yards away, frustrating the Hope players once again.
Hoe outshot Tolman, 16-9.
“Their goalie is very good,” DiGregorio agreed. “Still, I thought we were a bit unlucky. We had at least two shots go off the post.”
Couto and assistant coach Joe McConaghy admitted as much to their players after the game, reminding them this was a game they very easily could have lost.
“We have three important games next week,” Couto said. “We have to get ready for Hendricken (next Tuesday). Then we have East Providence and Barrington. The top 12 teams in Division I make the playoffs. We have to take this win and build on it.”
The Tigers visit East Providence next Thursday and then come home on Friday to host Barrington, which is running at the top of the league with fellow powers La Salle and North Kingstown. There are 15 teams in D-I. Only three get eliminated from postseason play. Tolman can use its final five regular season games to improve its playoff position and perhaps avoid one of the top three elite teams in the opening round.
“Tolman can be a good team,” Al DeGregorio said as he walked to his own team’s bus. “They played well and were the better team today.”