Hawks look to stay on top

Woodland seniors, from left, Zach Noreika, Taylor Dragon, Dean Conway, Stephanie Kiley and P.J. Conway will lead the cross country teams this season. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Woodland seniors, from left, Zach Noreika, Taylor Dragon, Dean Conway, Stephanie Kiley and P.J. Conway will lead the cross country teams this season. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — The Woodland cross country teams are looking to pick up where they left off last season, with a title defense in one hand and the possibility of a league title in the other.

Finishing 2013 with an undefeated record of 13-0, the girls cross country team became Naugatuck Valley League champions under 14-year head coach Jeff Lownds.

“We worked our tails off last season, they deserved every second of winning the NVL championship and they really are a great group of girls,” said Lownds, who has been with the cross country program ever since its birth over a decade ago.

Returning four of their top seven runners from last season, the Hawks are poised to return to the top of the league. Senior captain Stephanie Kiley, who was named All-Naugatuck Valley League last season, and junior Clara Drozdowski, also named All-Naugatuck Valley League in 2013, look to anchor a roster that is full of talent from top to bottom.

“Stephanie has worked really hard for us over the years and has given a lot of herself to the program. She’s very reliable, she has a very good work ethic and I feel this was her turn and the girls will learn a lot from her,” Lownds said.

Unfortunately, one runner doesn’t make a team. The Naugatuck Valley League is going to be brutal once against this year, making a repeat very difficult.

“To win this league you’re going to have to go undefeated, that’s what it’s going to take,” said Lownds laughing. “We just have to win each meet and approach that one meet at a time.”

When it comes to the boys team, they’ll be returning the majority of a roster that finished 11-3 in 2013 and will feature two All-Brass award winners, one of which is the new captain as a junior. Senior Zack Noreika and junior Jeff Giusto anchor an experienced team that, under Giusto’s leadership, looks to improve from a year ago.

“There were a couple nights during the summer where local 5K races were held and Jeff, through no direction of mine, tried to get a couple guys to go train and work over the summer, so that was the biggest influence on my decision to name him captain. He possesses great leadership skills,” Lownds said.

Working alongside assistant coach Ross Cooper for all 14 years Lownds has been on the job, they both have a good feel for this year and a positive outlook on things to come. Both starting when the program was first started, a strong relationship has developed between the two that has blossomed into success on the tracks.

“Coach Cooper and myself see eye-to-eye when it comes to this sport. There isn’t much we disagree on, so it makes coaching these boys and girls easier and more fun to get the most out of these kids,” Lownds said.

The Hawks open the season with the Wilton Invitational Saturday before returning home Tuesday to face Kennedy, Oxford, Holy Cross and Wolcott.