After a down stretch in the Woodland-Seymour football rivalry, Hawks coach Tim Shea thinks the Valley’s youngest Thanksgiving series is ready to revert back to its competitive roots.
“Hopefully it’s a rivalry again,” Shea said. “Both programs are playing better football again. It’s Thanksgiving in the Valley. It’s what people look for.”
In the teams’ first five meetings from 2003-07, only once was a game decided by more than 13 points, and twice the difference was less than a touchdown.
From 2003-08, Woodland and Seymour combined for six postseason berths and three state championships. In every game, each team had more to play for than simple pride.
But recent contests have been duds. Starting with the Wildcats’ 46-28 win in the 2007 Class SS semifinals and continuing through the Hawks’ 28-7 victory last Thanksgiving eve, none of the rivalry games have been decided by fewer than three possessions.
At least one of the teams in each of the last four seasons has finished without a winning record, which was an impossible thought early in the rivalry.
Adding to the tumult in the rivalry was the originally planned change that would have switched the rivalry game to Thanksgiving morning from its traditional night-before spotlight.
Everything is settling back to how it should be, though. Woodland won the Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division title and is playing for a Class S postseason berth, Seymour is playing for a winning record and — as important as anything — the game is still on Thanksgiving eve.
“I didn’t tell the kids about the switch back when I found out. I showed the kids on the SMART Board before film one day,” Shea said. “Some of the guys who could read were really excited that the game was back on Thanksgiving eve.”
This season has given plenty of reason for the Hawks and their fans to be excited. Their offense, led by quarterback Tanner Kingsley and a trio of veteran receivers, has smashed records and helped the program earn its first division title since 2007.
Woodland is also in position to qualify for the state playoffs with a win and a little bit of help. If the Hawks make the Class S field, it would be their fifth postseason appearance in nine years.
For everything Woodland has on the line, though, Shea thinks Seymour will relish its role as a potential spoiler.
“It’s a chance where we can control our own destiny,” Shea said. “It’s one more thing to make the game even bigger. For us to do it against our rival and for them to keep out their rival, it’s two-fold. Those kids will be ready to play. Hopefully we get a good crowd and some noise and a Valley-type atmosphere.”
Woodland averaged 41 points and 385 yards per game in its eight regular-season games leading up to Thanksgiving eve. The Hawks rely mostly on their re-installed spread offense that relies upon ball control.
“There’s more to the spread than quick-strike,” Shea said. “It’s there but it’s also a very manageable offense if you do it correctly. We prepare for that the way we script it in practice. We manage it to where we feel that when we have the ball we’re in control.”
Kingsley set a pair of NVL records in Woodland’s 56-30 win over Naugatuck with 502 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns. Kingsley’s 32 touchdowns on the season also broke a school record.
With senior wide receivers Anthony Scirpo, Rahmi Rountree and Brian Reis, junior wideout Jack Pinho and junior tight ends Brian Zaccagnini and Levi Fancher, Kingsley’s had plenty of targets from which to choose.
Woodland’s offensive line has been extremely consistent, protecting Kingsley and paving the way for more than 1,200 rushing yards by Joe Fancher, Joe Masulli and others.
“We graduated four starters from last year,” said Shea, whose starting line consists of Max McSperrin, Jake Laliberte, Jeremy Clark, Eric Collodel and Kevin Brennan. “We wanted to throw these kids into the fire but we wanted to bring them along slowly. A good staff caters their scheme to what they have talent-wise. We have two sophomores starting on our offensive line that are playing pretty well and the other guys are first-year starters on the other side. They take the whole five-guys thing to heart.”
In the Hawks’ two regular-season losses, opposing defenses effectively pressured Kingsley. Shea thinks Seymour will try to replicate that formula.
“They’re going to come after us and (Seymour coach Tom) Lennon will make us look for a lot of things,” Shea said.
The Wildcats have rededicated themselves to the running game this season as three players — Jim Vartelas, Jack Briggs and Mike Conlan — have rushed for more than 300 yards. Conlan, also the team’s quarterback, averages about 100 yards per game through the air.
“Offensively they’re back to playing Seymour football, running counters and bootlegs,” Shea said. “Conlan is a pretty good quarterback and they have two good running backs in Vartelas and Briggs. They’re tough Valley kids. There are a lot of similarities between the kids and we have to stop what they do.”
Seymour is reeling, though, having lost two straight and four of six after a perfect 3-0 start. But the opportunity to clinch their first winning record since 2008 and keep the Hawks out of the playoffs could add plenty of extra spice to this Thanksgiving eve in Beacon Falls.
“When I played, only two teams made the playoffs so Thanksgiving was it,” Shea said. “It’s something we’ve been gearing toward all year, and for some kids this is their whole career. Ask anyone who’s played in it, Thanksgiving in the Valley takes on a life of its own.”