By early next week, basketball teams statewide will have reached the midway point of their league seasons.
For some boys' squads, the writing’s on the wall that their seasons will come to a close some time in mid-February. But for several others, including a plethora of area teams, the postseason is clearly within reach with still plenty of basketball to be played in the final month of league competition.
St. Raphael Academy, atop the standings in Division I-East at 5-3, is just three games away from winning the required 40 percent on its 18-game schedule. Division II teams like Central division rivals Tolman (4-3) and Shea (3-4) and North squads Central Falls (5-2) and Cumberland (3-4) as well as Burrillville (3-5), North Smithfield (3-4) and Mount St. Charles (3-6) in Division III-North also are legitimate playoff hopefuls.
Also, don’t count out teams like East Providence (2-5 in Div. I-East) and Lincoln (2-5 in Div. II-Central), who are capable of manufacturing a strong second half and sneaking their way into the extra season.
Of the three divisions, the Div. II landscape appears to be the most intriguing, not only from a local standpoint but as an entire league. Longtime Tolman coach Mike Kayata, whose team has caught a little fire lately, says that parity is prevalent.
“I think Division II, as a whole, is a very competitive division from top to bottom,” Kayata said. “There are maybe two or three teams that are not very competitive. I think anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”
Presently, Division II-East frontrunner Tiverton and Div. II-South leaders Westerly and West Warwick are tied for the best records at 6-1. Central Falls, first in Div. II-North, and North Providence, first in Div. II-Central, own 5-2 marks.
“The best team I have seen so far is Tiverton,” said Kayata, whose squad lost a narrow 64-61 decision to the Tigers on Jan. 4. “They got a big man, a legitimate shooter in Gunnar C. Bjoinson. They are the best team I have seen so far. They have a good point guard and a couple of shooters.”
There’s also North Providence, which Tolman lost to by an 83-71 score back on Dec. 13.
“They are a close second from what I have seen, really quick fast guards. They shoot well,” Kayata said. “There’s also Westerly from the South. We haven’t seen them. We were supposed to play them (Wednesday) night but it was postponed from the snow. They are a really quality team – a couple of shooters and a big man. It’s a very competitive league.”
With one more month left on the league slate, Tolman is one of those teams that seems to be clicking at just the right time. The Tigers have won six of their last seven games, including four of their last five league conquests.
The two non-league victories occurred when the Tigers captured the Cumberland-Lincoln Boys & Girls Club Holiday Tournament, held Dec. 28-29. In the finals, Tolman survived a tight 61-58 win over Lincoln.
“I think our guys are getting used to playing with each other,” Kayata said. “Through working together, our guys are starting to see the options and really seeing where the ball should be going. They are starting to realize our strengths and weaknesses of the team, which is really good.”
Senior captain Jeremy Graca, who poured in 28 points in last Friday’s 70-65 victory over Rogers, has fueled the offense.
“He has been our go-to man. He’s clutch,” said Kayata, about Wiggins. “He’s made tremendous plays down the stretch.”
Several of Graca’s teammates have also gotten the job done lately with quality shooters like senior Nkosi Scott, sophomore Juan Velez and 6-foot-4 senior Elijiah Wiggins.
“He’s a quality big man,” Kayata said. “He can score at the high post, from the baseline and free throw line. He’s also an excellent rebounder.”
The Tigers have also gotten quality minutes from their bench with players such as junior Justin Zetina, senior captain Troy Sawyer, senior Rems Percy and senior Kevin Coughlin. And, of course, there’s also been the outstanding play of starting point guard and senior Rodney Bastillo.
“He’s a great floor leader, great at calling plays,” Kayata said. “He also always comes up with great defensive play for us.”
The Tolman coach feels his team has benefitted from having a senior-laden roster.
“We have a lot of senior leadership,” he said. “We have eight seniors on this team, led by senior captains Jeremy Graca and Troy Sawyer. They see the writing on the wall. They are playing with a sense of urgency. They know there is no next year.
This year postseason will be a little different with the new state tournament that has been introduced. Qualifying teams will play for their respective divisional titles and then 16 select squads from the respective divisions will contend for the overall state crown. Div. I will have eight representatives, Div. II will have five and Div. III will have three.
“That’s the big push,” Kayata said. “That’s our goal. Our goal is to get into the state tournament. Right now, we are just outside the area. We got 12 games to go. We got a little ground to make up. It looks like we are just outside the fifth spot right now. Things can change at the end of the season. This league is tough. There is no guaranteed wins.”