BEACON FALLS — The sting of a 1-9 season — the worst in Woodland football history — was as fresh as the Thanksgiving leftovers two years ago when first-year coach Chris Moffo conducted his year-end meetings.
“We collected uniforms at the end of that year, and myself and the coaches told (returning players) that this could go a couple of ways,” Moffo recalls. “‘You can learn and grow from your mistakes and work toward getting better, or it could be something where you just mail it in.’ These kids didn’t (give up). When we were 1-9, we knew it was going to take work and the extra effort.”
The transformation between the Hawks, who suffered a 55-20 loss to end that 2016 season, and this year’s Hawks, who enter Thanksgiving eve with a chance to earn a home playoff game in the quarterfinals, is remarkable.
Last season, Woodland was bound to improve from that dreadful 1-9 record. The Hawks learned how to win close games — a 34-30 comeback win over Crosby in Week 1 and a 15-8 upset of St. Paul in Week 8 were the highlights — and three of their five losses came to playoff teams.
But in many cases, Woodland’s still-inexperienced bunch was overmatched, pushed around and bruised. Even with an improvement to a 5-5 record, the Black and Gold still seemed black and blue.
Yet as those hematomas — both of the literal and figurative variety — healed, the Hawks managed to come back stronger.
“It was a good lesson for us as sophomores to start at the varsity level and get our butts kicked and see how intense that level of football is,” three-year starter and senior running back Edit Krivca says. “Junior year was another step of the learning process so we could see what it takes to win football games and be a dominant force in the NVL. This year, that’s when we’ve laid it all out on the table. We’ve shown teams that we’re back and the program’s ready to win games again.”
Moffo attributes much of this season’s success to the lumps the current upperclassmen took over the last two campaigns.
“As sophomores, they were put in against teams that they weren’t ready for,” Moffo says. “They weren’t ready to be varsity football players just yet, and they took on the role. It matured them and developed them as players. They recognized that and they’ve been able to capitalize on that. They knew what it’s like to get bullied around on Friday nights. They grew every year and they took on the tasks, and it shows by the way they lead and hold each other accountable this year.”
One of the biggest reasons for the sharp turnaround this fall has been the play of junior quarterback Tyler Bulinski, a second-year starter. With an improved offensive line, wide receivers, and offensive coordinator Chris Anderson back in the saddle, Bulinski has helped Woodland’s offense turn from a one-dimensional running game to a balanced attack.
“We were rebuilding,” Bulinski says. “We’ve all started for a couple of years. We all have the experience. We’ve grown and know each other better, and now we’re at the peak of what we’re doing.”
“Tyler is very coachable,” Anderson says. “Anytime you’re coachable, you’re open to learning and understanding. He’s also a great student of the game. He’s very accurate as a thrower, he has a strong arm, and he’s an athlete. He’s a basketball player who can run. When you don’t have a lot of coaches on staff, you usually don’t have a quarterback coach. Being able to work with Tyler on a daily basis, he sees more of the game now. He wants to learn every single day.”
“He’s matured throughout the season,” Moffo says of Bulinski, who shined in a 215-yard, two-touchdown performance against Ansonia on Nov. 3. “We expected by this point to increase his role, and that’s shown. We can put more on his plate. He’s not the young sophomore he was last year. He can recognize certain things about defenses that allows him to excel.”
Bulinski and Krivca have also benefited from excellent offensive line play, led by Joe Shea and Josh Hassan.
“Josh and I knew this whole season would depend on us, and we’ve been teaching these guys the importance of communication up front,” Shea says. “I think that’s a big part of why we’ve been so successful. There are no secrets. We talk and it helps us up front to make holes for (Krivca).”
Still, when Moffo is asked if he expected the Hawks to be 8-1 entering Thanksgiving eve this year, he’s not afraid to admit it — “no.”
“Some of us were talking during the offseason, and we thought that we could make some strides this year to vastly improve on the 5-5 that we did last year,” Moffo says. “But the kids came in and produced. They bought in and worked.”
Moffo particularly credited his seniors: Krivca, Shea, Hassan, Zach Cochran, Richie Weishner, Mike Farina, David Kiernan, Justin Marks, Albert Pangrac, Carter Amore, Mike Carranza, Peter Rosato, Dante DiRubba and Jason Hicks.
“I can’t say enough about this group of seniors,” Moffo boasts. “Their perseverance to stick with this and not mail it in — they deserve this.”
Editor’s note: This article appears in the Citizen’s News’ special Thanksgiving football section published Nov. 22, 2018.