Woodland boys control division entering stretch run of season

BEACON FALLS — It’s a position that the Woodland boys basketball team has never experienced. But the Hawks aren’t afraid to be in control of the Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division entering the stretch run of the season.

Woodland starts the second half of the year — and most importantly the second round of divisional play — Friday against rival Ansonia. The Hawks carry the division’s target on their back after going a perfect 4-0 through the first cycle through the Copper.

“We’re not shy about it,” Woodland coach John Mariano said. “I don’t make it a huge deal because I think every game’s important, but the kids are excited. We’re humble because we know those games were all close games the first time. I think the kids realize they’ve put themselves in a good position, but they realize there’s still a lot of work left to do.”

The second round of divisional play doesn’t shape up to be easy — after all, two of Woodland’s first four wins came by single digits. Plus, the Hawks enter the second half having lost three of their last four contests to fall to 5-6 overall.

Woodland suffered a 74-62 home defeat to Kennedy on Jan. 17 before edging Derby, 66-62, on the road Jan. 22. The Hawks then fell to Torrington and Sacred Heart in double-digit road losses over the next week.

While Mariano was disappointed with his team’s effort in Torrington, he was pleased with his Hawks in Derby and Waterbury. For example, after facing a pair of double-digit deficits against Derby, Woodland rallied to squeak out a four-point win.

“We reached another level that I hadn’t seen from the kids on offense and defense,” Mariano said. “Three or four guys were making huge plays. That was a huge game.”

Although Woodland suffered a 69-50 loss to Sacred Heart on Jan. 28, Mariano said it was a strong defensive effort by his club against a Hearts squad with an NVL winning streak of more than 115 games.

“We were edgy, played hard, and made things difficult for them,” said Mariano, whose team was led by Nathaniel Smith’s 20 points and Robert Moriarty’s 12. “We only gave up 69 points to a team that can really score. We just have tough kids who play hard and don’t quit. I was happy that our effort was back.”

As the end of the season — and potentially the program’s first division title — looms near, Mariano hopes to see more consistency with every game becoming crucial.

“I told the guys, we have to make sure we bring the effort all the time,” Mariano said. “It seems like we’re bringing it 80 or 90 percent of the time, and then we have a game where we lapse. It’s a long season with 20 games. That eight-to-12-game stretch feels like it’s forever, but now it’s the home stretch. Guys are ready and locked in.”

After hosting Ansonia, the Hawks will host Oxford on Wednesday. Woodland will visit rival Naugatuck, which has been arguably the league’s most impressive team so far, Feb. 7 in an effort to hand the Greyhounds their first defeat. The Hawks will finish divisional play against Derby on Feb. 11 and at Seymour on Feb. 13.