SPORTS

What a great sports city

By ALEX SPONSELLER
Posted 1/20/21

The Rhode Island baseball community lost one of its greats recently, as Mario Pagano of Cranston passed away at 77 years old. His claim to fame was being one of the best high school athletes in the history of the city then going on to pitch for the

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SPORTS

What a great sports city

Posted

The Rhode Island baseball community lost one of its greats recently, as Mario Pagano of Cranston passed away at 77 years old. His claim to fame was being one of the best high school athletes in the history of the city then going on to pitch for the Boston Red Sox farm system for six years. He was inducted into the Cranston Athletic Hall of fame.

In the past few months, this city has lost a handful of great former athletes. If you have been keeping up with the Herald, I am sure you have seen many of the stories.

First off, my condolences to the Pagano family. I never knew him personally, but from speaking with his family, I admired how invested he was in his children and grandchildren. It is one of those heartwarming stories of a man passing down his love of sports to his family behind him and making a long-lasting tradition.

Receiving first-hand knowledge from a former pro is invaluable, so I am sure that his loved ones will carry on his athletic legacy wonderfully, while remembering him as the ultimate family man.

When thinking back on the different deaths that have occurred recently, the first thing that I felt was sadness. Reporting on these stories is never easy, you always feel for those close to the subjects.

But something else hit me, though.

I look back at the impact of these individuals, the successes that they have had, the memories that they have made and been a part of. Cranston has a truly incredible athletic history, one that is understated.

This city has such a rich sports history, and although I am always sad to report these types of stories, it does make me feel fortunate to cover athletics in such a sports-driven place. Cranston loves its sports and celebrates them with passion. As a sports journalist, that’s so inspiring. Things will be different in the local hockey landscape this winter as the Pilgrim and Toll Gate boys teams are joining forces and creating a co-op.

This will be the third co-op in Warwick, with girls hockey and gymnastics being the others. Let me take a moment to give you my thoughts on the transaction and what it means moving forward.

First off, I think this is a great thing for the city. It has been fairly well received to this point, as it should be. Without these two teams banding together, they may not have been able to have a team at all. Toll Gate’s numbers were better than Pilgrim’s, but neither team had great depth in numbers and each appeared to be only a season or two away from being in real danger.

So, from just a black and white, straightforward perspective, we have to be happy with this decision because we ultimately did not have any other choice.

Pilgrim was down to an estimated 11 kids … 11 kids. When I was first told that number, I was shocked.

I knew that the team’s numbers were trending down and that private schools and prep programs were snagging kids away left and right. But, especially considering how much success this team has had, I had no idea what it had become endangered to that extent. I couldn’t believe it.

There is no way that you can comfortably dress a varsity program with 11 kids. The kids would be run into the ground by midseason, there would be virtually zero room for injury, and considering the ongoing pandemic, it would have been near impossible to have a hockey program with 11 kids.

Even Toll Gate, the numbers weren’t great, and if they were, they would have been able to have a junior varsity program as well. This wasn’t a situation where one team was totally fine and was forced to inherit another. Each team needed each other at the end of the day.

Let’s start with the negatives.

Of course, this is an inner-city rivalry which will now be caput. I have to admit, though, as much as I usually love the Pilgrim-Toll Gate rivalries, hockey just didn’t seem to burn as hot as some of the other sports. Between the two schools being in different divisions and only playing in non-league action, it was more ceremonial than meaningful.

Don’t get me wrong, give me a rivalry no matter how you chop it up. With this specific sport, though, I am not terribly disappointed to see the rivalry go.

The other issue is also the merging of players and coaches.

Peter Stringfellow (Toll Gate’s coach) and Mike Boyajian Sr. (Pilgrim’s coach) have been assigned as co-head coaches. In some, if not most situations, having two leaders can spell trouble. However, there seems to be a mutual respect between the two in the early going. Neither was slighted in the decision, it is what it is and I think they both recognize that and are trying to make the most of it. I’m sure each brings some fresh perspective to the other as well.

As for the kids, many of them know each other through living in the same city, competing against each other, or even playing on travel or youth programs together. From what I have been told, the kids have been gelling nicely and are ready to share a bench.

However, let’s be real here.

At some point this season, there will come a time when one of these guys is going to have to take control and the other will have to concede some power. When that time comes, how will each react? I honestly believe that two head coaches can co-exist and have success, but there will be a dynamic in play.

Also, there will be a dynamic with the kids.

What is going to happen when Boyajian gives the Toll Gate player minutes over one of “his guys” and vice versa? What will happen when Stringfellow gets on a Pilgrim player more than one of “his guys.” Once again, I do believe that this arrangement is going to work and things will be just fine, I am just saying that I do believe that this team will need to be prepared for that in the early going.

Once again, let’s be real here.

This is high school hockey. No one’s job and livelihood is at stake, it’s ultimately supposed to be for fun. Especially with the times we’re in, more than ever, this should be all about giving the kids a chance to compete and enjoy themselves while playing their sport.

I don’t expect there to be much headache or controversy because every single person - coaches and athletes - is there for the same reason: To play the game and have fun doing it.

At the end of the day though, we’re all human, and ego will likely come into play at some point.

Now, the positives.

Other than the fact that it ensures that kids will be able to play, I do think the added depth will pay dividends across the board.

Kids will be able to be rested and it will also make practices more competitive with kids fighting for minutes. Iron sharpens iron.

Not only that, but it will also give the coaches more bodies, more skillsets to work with, and will only make the team more versatile in its approach and what it can do. I just think that each team is better off in the long run when it comes to success on the ice.

Then there’s the junior varsity program which is debuting this season as well.

Hockey is a tough sport. It’s not a sport where you can just lace up the skates and hit the ice right away. It takes time, experience, practice to truly be able to compete at the high school level.

Think about how tough it would be as a freshman with limited experience having to go against seniors with four years under their belt? Not only would it be overwhelming, it would be dangerous. Only the best players can make that leap.

The introduction of a junior varsity program will keep the less experienced kids safe while also allowing them to get their feet wet in the sport before being fed to the wolves. Having that stability will also help the varsity team succeed, because it will limit the number of underclassmen that will need to be relied on to make an impact. They can take their time, learn the ropes, and be ready to go as sophomores or juniors.

There are pros and cons with this whole situation, no doubt. But at the end of the day, kids will now get to play hockey worry-free moving forward and be safer in doing so. The trending numbers are still concerning, but at least this solution will provide the city with some stability for the time being.

Overall, I am for the move and have been impressed with how smooth it has gone to this point. There seems to be genuine collaboration on each side, which will be key as they get ready to hit the ice.

My Pitch, sports

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