BEACON FALLS — The winter after Woodland’s 2016 football season, well, wasn’t good.
“1-9 wasn’t acceptable,” now-Woodland senior lineman Ryan Knobel recalls of that offseason following his freshman year. “We knew we had hit rock bottom.”
It’s a season that Woodland coach Chris Moffo doesn’t really like to think about — it wasn’t exactly the best start to his head coaching career, after all — but it’s one that helped shape his small but crucial senior class of this fall.
“They wanted to get better and they wanted to succeed,” Moffo says. “Going 1-9 was unacceptable to them. They wanted to be better. They got the criticism from everybody, and they’ve come through strong. That 1-9 winter was rough. They were here every day. They lifted the weights and they ran. They took that on when they could have packed it in, and I’m very proud of them.”
Knobel, lineman Alek Tolboe and quarterback Tyler Bulinski are the three most experienced players of this seven-man senior class. Their classmates include lineman Collin Lacy and Kyle Ministro, receiver-defensive back James Champagne, and Andrew Rowley.
That group represents less than half of what they started with in 2016.
“We started with 15 guys our freshman year, and we’re down to seven,” Tolboe says. “The guys who have stayed have really pushed themselves to be the best they can be. We’re low in numbers, but that creates more of a family. We know each other really well and we’re able to communicate so much better than other teams do.”
Knobel agrees that communication among not only the senior class but among the relatively small group of linemen has paid dividends for a team that got off to an 8-1 start and put itself in position to return to the Class S playoffs with a Thanksgiving eve win over Seymour.
“Definitely building chemistry and communicating — since we’re like a family now on the O-line, we all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so we can help each other out,” Knobel says. “We’re doing a great job of that this year.”
That job started in earnest during that dreadful offseason.
“Coming off the worst season in program history, it was terrible,” Bulinski says. “I don’t think we’ve ever worked as hard as we did collectively that offseason. It’s paid off these last two seasons.”
“The feeling of 1-9 wasn’t good and we didn’t want to have that again, so we pushed ourselves through and wanted to get to the next level,” Knobel adds.
Tolboe says that through the hard work of their class, their predecessors and their current teammates, the program’s culture is back to the place where it should be.
“1-9 was terrible — not just the games, but the practices and the atmosphere,” Tolboe says. “Now that we’re up and we’re winning, I feel like we have the whole school behind us. That’s so much better than it was our freshman year, and I feel like that in itself is really rewarding.”
Much of that has to do with the job Tolboe and Knobel have done up front. As the only returning starters on the offensive line, they’ve helped lead a unit with three new starters that changed from a run-based offense last year to a spread offense this season.
“Those guys took it in stride,” Moffo says. “Those guys are veterans and they were able to understand what we were putting to paper. They wanted to be in this position and they’ve executed.”
Bulinski, for one, is thrilled with the way the transition happened in front of him.
“I’m proud of them and what they’ve done this year,” Bulinski says. “They’ve exceeded my expectations.”
Moffo says that the two veteran linemen arrived at their current spots via different means.
“Alec saw early success as a sophomore and was able to play,” Moffo adds. “He’s a smart kid, a strong kid, has all the tools to be successful. Ryan’s got the size and the ability, but he had to really work at his craft. Ryan is really the unsung hero of the offensive line. Last year he was at center. This year he got hurt in the beginning of practice, and he came back and has done a tremendous job at tackle.”
Knobel says he prides himself in simply being available to play.
“You always get little bumps and bruises, but you can’t sit out,” says Knobel, who credits trainer Ryan Kirby for helping him stay on the field. “Your boys need you out there. Any injury I’ve gotten, I’ve always strived to get back on the field for my boys.”
That meant one more time against Seymour, against whom the Hawks had the chance to even the all-time series with a win for a second straight year.
“Just being part of the rivalry is special,” Tolboe says. “Knowing how even the matchups have been since this school was built — it’s pretty cool to be part of the history between these teams.”
Most importantly to Tolboe and his fellow seniors, they wanted to prove themselves to themselves and the program that they’ll soon leave behind.
“That inspiration and senior leadership, believing in what we’re doing — you don’t need to be like anyone else to be good,” Tolboe says. “We’re leaving the program better than we found it, and I think that’s really what matters.”