Hawks the hunted

Woodland girls soccer captains, from left, senior Gillian Hotchkiss, senior Jenna Pannone, junior Eliza Smith and senior Sam Plasky will lead the Hawks this season. –KEN MORSE

Woodland girls soccer captains, from left, senior Gillian Hotchkiss, senior Jenna Pannone, junior Eliza Smith and senior Sam Plasky will lead the Hawks this season. –KEN MORSE

BEACON FALLS — The Hawks know it will be a very difficult task to duplicate last year’s undefeated season in the NVL that was capped with their first league soccer title since 2004. But that doesn’t mean getting back to the title game and defending their crown aren’t goals the Hawks are striving to obtain.

“It would be crazy to think we could go undefeated again like last season,” said Woodland head coach Cait Witham, who led the team to a 15-0-1 regular season record and the program’s first appearance in a state semifinal game last year. “We do know we have a huge target on our backs going into the season, but defending our title is really not a far stretch.”

The Hawks lost several integral pieces to the puzzle to graduation, including midfielder and playmaker Alexa Casimiro, who is now playing for UConn, All-NVL defender Shae Geary, defender Sonia Sousa, midfielder and scorer Jess Rodrigues and midfielder Val Vinca.

“We are a little younger than some groups I’ve had in the past, but we do return a solid group of kids who have varsity experience. That is a good thing,” Witham said. “Down the stretch when we went deep in the states a lot of the younger kids got some valuable experience.”

Witham is entering her fourth year at the helm and already has established a bit of a winning tradition under her watch with a 50-12-2 ledger. She has assistant coach Jess Moffo, the Woodland head girls basketball coach, to lean on.

Woodland will have four captains, each with different skill sets, to lead the way.

Senior goalie Jenna Pannone comes into her final year with 21 shutouts in her career and has allowed just 19 goals in two regular seasons.

Senior midfielders Sam Plasky and Gillian Hotchkiss provide the team strength over the middle of the field. Junior defender Eliza Smith will help make Pannone’s job in the net easier.

“We have good senior leadership and our captains know how to handle the high pressure situations and be leaders out on the field,” Witham said.

The Hawks suffered a big loss in the preseason with a season-ending injury to senior Maribella Sousa, who tore her ACL. Senior Hailey Boris and junior Haley Andrews are ready to take over the role on offense with junior midfielder Megen Sirowich looking to expand her role this season.

Woodland has a strong sophomore class that grew by leaps and bounds last year. Sophomores Haley Wolfanger, Julia Casimiro, Julie Accetura, Juliana Villano, Nicole Sherman and Alana Carasone give coach Witham options as games go down the stretch.

Having a deep, experienced bench will set the Hawks apart from a lot of the teams in the NVL. But the target gets bigger as they head into the season.

“The thing I try to instill in them is to always work hard to get the respect you think you deserve,” Witham said. “I want these kids to know that if you don’t back down no matter what the scoreboard shows you will be successful.

“I’m not concerned with us losing a game. I’m more concerned with us not playing up to our ability by not playing till the end of the game. Last year in the semis of the states we came back from a 2-0 deficit at halftime to tie the game.”

That never-quit attitude is what Witham is looking for from her Hawks.

“If we can play with that kind of mentality our record will take care of itself,” Witham said. “Having Jenna in goal makes us a much better team. She is without a doubt the best goalie in the NVL, if not the state, and she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.”

Woodland opens the season Sept. 9 at home at 4 p.m. versus Seymour.