BEACON FALLS — Dan Mariano squatted on the Woodland football field after his team’s disheartening, 28-21 loss to the Hawks (5-3) Friday, the proud senior captain’s glazed expression creating an invisible force field no teammate dared breach.
At last, assistant coach Mark Swanson approached Mariano and leaned over: “We’re going to win out,” Swanson said. “You’ve gotta believe.”
“I know,” Mariano replied. “I do believe.”
Admittedly, such belief in the 3-5 Greyhounds requires enormous optimism, given that the two remaining games on Naugatuck’s schedule are a trip to undefeated Holy Cross (8-0) and a Thanksgiving Day showdown with archrival Ansonia (6-2), which has won 20 of the teams’ last 23 meetings.
Then there’s Naugy’s propensity for losing winnable games, a trait displayed again last week in the Woods.
With the game tied at 14 in the fourth quarter, Woodland’s Jack DeBiase busted a 60-yard touchdown run up the right sideline for the biggest chunk of his 143 rushing yards.
The Hounds’ Tyler Conklin coughed up the ensuing kick return, and the Hawks’ Jeff Holder recovered, giving the home team a chance to put the game out of reach at the Naugy 22-yard line. NHS’ defense caught a break when a Brandon Fowler touchdown was called back because of a hold, and quarterback Steve Petracca’s fourth-down completion to Fowler wasn’t long enough to move the chains.
Down by a single score with about five minutes on the clock, Naugatuck committed another turnover just three plays later, a backwards pass hitting an unprepared Marty DeJesus in the back. Mike Uszakiewicz fell on the live ball at Naugatuck’s 5-yard line, and on third-and-goal, Chris D’Occhio found the end zone for the second time, making it 28-14 Hawks. It was just the second time this season a Black and Gold back other than DeBiase has led the team in TDs.
“All the backs are finally starting to find their own little niches on the field,” Woodland head coach Tim Shea said. “Tyler [Slapikas] does certain things, Jack does certain things, Brandon is starting to run the ball a little better, D’Occhio’s getting a couple carries a game. Hopefully that won’t allow people to key just on Jack. Jack’s gonna get his carries, but the more people that can do it the better.”
For Naugatuck, it was the third loss this season when leading or tied in the second half.
“We had this game, and it’s just a matter of not taking that next step forward ‘cuz they don’t know how,” Naugatuck head coach Rob Plasky summarized. “After last year’s [3-8] season, they don’t know how.”
The Greyhounds might have held a halftime lead against the Hawks, if not for a premature whistle that nixed a touchdown. A shotgun snap squirted by Petracca, who chased down the loose ball and attempted to cover it up. An official, likely trying to protect the QB from being hit while on the ground, blew the play dead, even though Petracca had not established possession. Petracca popped the ball up in the air and into the arms of Mariano, who sprinted untouched 40 yards for an apparent score.
Plasky said he heard the official tell the rest of his crew he had blown the call.
It was just one wildcard moment in the latest chapter of what has become a rivalry of familiarity.
“It’s a great game playing Naugatuck,” said Shea, a former player and assistant coach at NHS. “You throw the records out the window. You could compare this to a college rivalry game: border towns, everybody knows each other’s business, who’s playing, who’s doing what. These kids all grew up playing together.”