Lou Poeta and Paul Brennan are lifelong residents of Beacon Falls. They remember the days when Woodland Regional High School didn’t exist. Heck, there was no consideration of a high school being built anywhere near Beacon Falls when they were in school. Back then, kids from town went to Laurel Ledge Elementary and Long River Middle schools together but often went their separate ways for high school.
Poeta and Brennan both picked Naugatuck High for the last years of their public educations. Given the opportunity, however, neither would have hesitated to exchange their years in the borough for a stay at Woodland.
“I’m sure everybody in town wishes they could have,” Poeta said. “You would have gotten to stay with the people you grew up with.”
“Absolutely,” Brennan agreed. “To continue the friendship with kids you went to middle school with and then through the next four years would have been great.”
For the pair, Woodland was constructed about 25 years too late. But the fact that they didn’t earn a diploma from the Region 16 institution didn’t mean they couldn’t support the football team when it hit the varsity field in 2002. Neither had sons on the football team, but they started going anyway.
“One of the biggest draws for me was that a lot of the kids on the team were kids that I coached in basketball,” Brennan explained. “I wanted to see them play on the next level.”
“It was the first time we had a high school here, and we wanted to support it and the kids,” Poeta added. “I knew a lot of the kids personally, like Jared [Katchmar] and everybody, so I wanted to go out and support them. I watched them grow up.”
From the start of the Woodland football program, many saw the Hawks as a way to unite the town. All Beacon Falls residents wanted was something to call their own.
“My whole mom’s family is from Beacon Falls,” Woodland head coach Tim Shea said. “They always said they wanted something to call their own, instead of having to be associated with Naugatuck or another school. The whole valley was always able to rally around sports, and Beacon Falls finally had the chance to.”
First Selectman Susan Cable, who was instrumental in the founding of the school, which opened in 2001, also noted the importance of having a football team to rally around.
“It brought the whole region together,” Cable said. “It made people realize that together, Beacon Falls and Prospect are one team. We celebrated as one and made people understand that we were a united region.
“People believe it brings excitement to the community,” she added. “We never had one place to go as a town. It provided unity and support for us. Now it’s a focal point of the community.”
The fan support of the Black and Gold is something that has never been doubted by anyone up or down the valley. In fact, Woodland fans were voted best in the Naugatuck Valley League in a 2006 Republican-American poll.
“The team brought many townspeople out to the games that hadn’t been to games in many years,” Brennan explained. “We were bringing the largest crowds in the league even to visitors’ fields. We had bigger crowds than even they did most of the time.”
Poeta and Brennan have not been supporters of the Hawks only. That would be a gross understatement. For years, the two have been part of a group of tailgaters that started in the school parking lot and migrated across Rimmon Hill to the Beagle Club in recent years.
“We started in the school lot with Tommy Muggeo and Tommy Deegan,” Poeta said. “It’s a good way to get together with everybody, and now we support the Lion’s Club by being at the Beagle Club.”
“I took it over when we went to the Beagle Club,” Brennan explained. “Basically, there was no concession stand when we first started, until we built it, and we’ve kept it going ever since.”
Both also join Naugatuck native Scott Merenda on the Hawks’ chain gang, a team which featured Mike Kingsley, until he joined the Woodland coaching staff this season. As Brennan says, “You can’t get a better seat in the house.”
“Oh, we’re much closer to the action,” Poeta echoed. “There’s more game involved after the plays. You can hear and see and smell everything now.”
Not only are Poeta and Brennan involved in Woodland’s home games, but also they always hit the road to support the Hawks—and “always” is no hyperbole. Poeta has missed only two NVL contests and a pair of games in 2002, when Woodland traveled to New York and Rhode Island; but he made the almost two-hour hike to Putnam for this season’s opener to join about 100 fans in cheering on the Hawks. Brennan wasn’t able to make it to Putnam or the out-of-staters, but has never missed a game otherwise, calling the “excitement of the game” too much to miss.
“I hope those games I went to at St. Bernard, Vinal Tech, and Bristol in 2002 pays off for the two NVL games I missed last year,” Poeta joked.
Both Poeta and Brennan have obviously seen their fair share of Woodland games, so their opinions about the best game they’ve ever been at are pretty sound.
“Seymour in 2004 was big,” Poeta said of the Hawks’ first NVL championship win the day after Thanksgiving. “You always like to beat the valley teams. You’ve got Beacon Falls and Prospect introduced to high school football by championship teams. Just to see the football we saw in those years, it would be like two lifetimes to pay that experience off. If the Hawks went 0 for their next 100, knock on wood, we’d still be right behind them.”
Brennan recalled Woodland’s 13-6 win in the 2004 Class SS semifinal over Hartford Public as one of his favorites.
“That was the best game I think I saw them play,” he said. “Once they won that game, we knew they were going to win the state championship. It was probably one of the most hard-hitting games I’ve ever seen.”
And both headlined Woodland’s Halloween Miracle against Naugatuck in 2003 as their favorite game of all. Sure, the 41-37 win might have been the biggest in program history to that point, but it might have held a little more meaning for Brennan and Poeta.
“You’re always going to be a fan of your alma mater, but being a fan of the team in the town you’re from is something special,” Brennan said. “I’m a Naugatuck fan unless they’re playing Woodland, like that night.”
Poeta put it a little more bluntly.
“The day Woodland was built was the day I forgot about Naugatuck!”
I think it’s safe to say Woodland’s got itself a heck of a tradition.