Poeta comes up big as Hawks advance to Class S final
WOLCOTT — Until last weekend, the only people who had ever heard of Joe Poeta were his family, friends and a sampling of Woodland football fans. That all changed late last Saturday afternoon in the Class S semifinals.
Poeta caught the game-winning touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter and intercepted a pass with 46 seconds remaining to propel No. 4 Woodland past No. 8 Bloomfield, 30-26, and into the Class S state championship game.
The Hawks (12-2) will face No. 2 Ansonia for the title Friday at 7:05 p.m. at Central Connecticut State University’s Arute Field in New Britain
Clinging to a 30-26 lead with less than 2 minutes left, Woodland decided to punt on a fourth-and-7 at the Bloomfield 47-yard line. Jason Rodrigues boomed his kick into the end zone, setting up the Warhawks (10-3) at their own 20 with 1:31 to play.
On second down at the 26, Bloomfield quarterback Norvel Stewart scrambled to his left and threw into double coverage deep down the left side of the field. Poeta, playing as a second safety, ran behind fellow defensive back Mike Kenney and snatched the game-sealing interception.
“I was just trying not to let anybody behind me,” Poeta said. “He overthrew the receiver a little bit, and I knew I was coming down with it.”
Poeta’s interception — his first of the season — came about 7 minutes after he made the biggest catch of his career. With Woodland holding a 24-20 lead early in the fourth, Bloomfield forced a punt from near midfield. Travis Thompson muffed the punt, though, and Zack DeBrizzi recovered for Woodland at the Warhawks 11.
Two plays later, Poeta ran a streak into the left side of the end zone, where he hauled in a 12-yard strike from Tanner Kingsley to make it a 30-20 advantage with 8:06 remaining.
“We ran a crossing pattern,” Poeta said. “Mike (Kenney) took the defender inside and there was a big hole. Tanner threw a great ball.”
“[Joe Poeta] doesn’t say much, and he doesn’t look like much when you look at him. But when he puts that helmet and jersey on, his heart grows bigger. We needed him today and he did it.” -Tim Shea, Woodland football coach
It was Kingsley’s fourth touchdown pass of the day and the 113th of his career, which made him the state’s all-time record-holder. He finished 20-of-35 passing for 258 yards and no interceptions.
“Driving down the field, I kept asking my wide receivers who wanted the record-breaking touchdown,” Kingsley said. “Everybody said they wanted it except Joe, and Joe is the one who came up with it.”
For Woodland coach Tim Shea, Poeta’s performance was the signature of the hard-working junior’s career.
“He doesn’t say much, and he doesn’t look like much when you look at him,” Shea said. “But when he puts that helmet and jersey on, his heart grows bigger. We needed him today and he did it.”
Poeta wasn’t the only player to step up for Woodland. The Hawks started without leading rusher Sean McAllen (concussion) and lost backup Coby Vaccarelli to a knee injury just before halftime. Even though Woodland took an 18-7 lead into the locker room, it was a precarious edge as the Hawks were left without an experienced runner.
Bloomfield focused its defense on taking away the passing game early in the second half and was effective until Taylor Tucciarone filled in at running back. The senior wide receiver, who caught seven passes for 109 yards and two scores in the first half, gave the Hawks a much-needed ground game and finished with 87 yards on 16 carries.
“The coaches believed in me,” Tucciarone said. “I just wanted to run the ball hard. The offensive line blocked great. They don’t get too much credit, but they were great. We have a lot of heart. If one man goes down, the next man has to step up. We never give up.”
The Warhawks narrowed the Hawks’ lead to four points three different times in the second half (18-14, 24-20 and 30-26) but never broke through despite Stewart’s 240-yard, four-touchdown effort on the ground.
Bloomfield’s best chance to turn around the game came early in the third, when the Warhawks forced Woodland into a third-and-25 at its own 22. But Kingsley found Jack Pinho on a fade at midfield to extend the drive, which eventually chewed up half the quarter and ended on Kingsley’s 2-yard touchdown sneak for a 24-14 lead.
Woodland, which won its third game in nine days, is more banged-up than any team entering the state final. But after Saturday’s victory, Shea couldn’t hide his emotions about his squad’s effort.
“All the injuries, pain and hurt aside, you can’t take away the kids’ fight, drive, determination and straight-up belief that it was their turn,” Shea said. “You can’t measure that until it happens. I’m very proud of these kids. This is something they should never, never forget.”