Connection with seniors helps Collins, Hawks make seamless transition

Woodland head soccer coach Kenan Collins, center, is pictured with players Devon Polletta, left, and Dante Polletta, last year. Collins is in his first season as head coach for the Woodland boys soccer program after three years as the junior varsity coach. –CONTRIBUTED

BEACON FALLS — Kenan Collins knew he’d have to be at his best when he finally took over the Woodland boys soccer program from its first and only coach, Tony Moutinho.

So far, so good.

Collins, in his first season as head coach after three years as the junior varsity coach, has led the Hawks to a 9-2 record. Under his tutelage, Woodland should be in position to contend for another berth in the Naugatuck Valley League final — just like the Hawks did in Moutinho’s final season.

“Tony knows the sport better than anybody I know,” Collins said. “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever encountered.”

Collins, a history teacher at Woodland, ensured a seamless transition from the 18-year coach to a first-year coach thanks in large part to his relationship with this year’s senior class.

Collins’ first year with the soccer program was 2016 — the same year this current crop of seniors was cutting its teeth on the JV squad.

“I was fortunate to have a good corps of the seniors with me when I started (and they were) freshmen,” Collins said. “Since there are so many of them, it’s made things a lot easier. I have a strong rapport with that class.”

When it became clear that Collins would succeed Moutinho, who retired after the 2018 season due to work commitments, his returning seniors were thrilled.

“We love Mr. Collins,” said Dante Polletta, a senior co-captain. “We don’t want anybody else coaching us. He started (at the same time) we started (as freshmen). We don’t want this journey to end.”

“This year’s been great so far,” echoed Devon Polletta, also a senior co-captain. “He’s been really good to the guys and has made this into a cohesive team. He isn’t about screwing around, which is good because we’re very competitive. We hate screwing around.”

That no-nonsense attitude — OK, maybe a little bit of well-placed tomfoolery — was one of Collins’ goals entering a season in which the Hawks have obvious championship potential.

“Since I joined the program, some of the attitudes have definitely changed,” Collins noted. “It hasn’t been too difficult instilling discipline with this team. It’s a lot easier to get down to business when they have their heads on straight.”

One thing that Collins uses to keep his team grounded is the parity present in the NVL. The Hawks demonstrated some of that parity last year when they upset Naugatuck in the league semifinals, and they got a dose of their own medicine when they suffered a 3-1 home loss to the Greyhounds on Sept. 26.

“The NVL is a crazy league,” Collins said. “You look at some of the results, and you see teams lower on the totem pole punching above their weight and getting great results, and you see the teams at the very top putting in results you didn’t see coming. It really makes things interesting and fun — it’s not a foregone conclusion. You always have several capable teams in this league.”

So what will be the program’s identity under Collins? He brainstormed with assistant coach A.J. Oliveira, a former Woodland goalie.

“I want to build a winning program built on player development,” Oliveira said.

Collins liked that.

“We’ve always been about growth, but we’ve been fortunate to have kids come in from various clubs and bring that experience with them,” Collins said. “A.J. and I set a goal back in August that they will be better players by the time November hits. If they’re not better players, then we need to rethink things for future years.”

The growth that Collins and Oliveira want to see just might lead to the Hawks’ first NVL title since 2011. The regular season ends Oct. 30, and the league tournament begins Nov. 2.

“We’re all about growth, mixing in some fun,” Collins said, “and getting the right results.”