Brennan: Spiwak’s retirement the end of an era in Woodland athletics

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Jill Spiwak, left, pictured with fellow Woodland secretaries June Rydzik, center, and Debbie Betkoski in April. Spiwak, Woodland's longtime athletics secretary, retired Friday after 20 years on the job. (Courtesy of Hawk Headlines)

BY KYLE BRENNAN
CITIZEN’S NEWS

BEACON FALLS — In the late 1990s, a group of parents with children in Region 16 banded together for another effort to do what had previously failed: get the region a high school of its own.

Jill Spiwak was among those who joined the Region 16 High School Cooperative, which eventually helped pass the 1998 referendum that resulted in the opening of Woodland Regional High School in 2001.

Sure, those parents wanted to keep their kids together for high school academics instead of shipping them to Naugatuck, Seymour, Masuk, Wolcott and a host of other local schools. But there was one common thread that banded together the group.

“We were down at Pent [Road] and we knew we had amazing athletes,” Spiwak said, reminiscing on days spent at their kids’ games at the Beacon Falls Recreation Complex. “We knew we needed good academics, but the parents were excited about getting all the athletes together instead of spreading them out.”

Little did Spiwak know at the time that she would eventually become one of the most important figures in the history of the Hawks’ athletics program.

Spiwak, who’s been the do-it-all secretary in Woodland’s athletic office since the fall of 2002, will retire Sept. 16 — a date she’s dreaded since she made the decision at the end of the summer.

“I’ve just cried every day, basically,” Spiwak said. “This is tough.”

Those of us who have spent time working with the Hawks over the past two decades always joke that Spiwak is Woodland’s real athletic director. But in reality, the joke isn’t much of a joke at all.

Ask any of the three administrators she’s worked with — Dan Scavone, Brian Fell and Chris Decker — and they’ll all tell you how much they leaned on her work ethic, expertise, and cool handling of chaos.

Ask any of the countless coaches she’s coordinated with and they’ll all tell you that the Hawks wouldn’t have enjoyed the outstanding level of success over the past 20 years if Spiwak weren’t behind it all.

And ask any of the thousands of student-athletes who have donned the black and gold — and probably spent time the following morning in her office talking about the wins and losses — and they’ll all tell you that their experience as a Hawk wouldn’t have been the same without Spiwak.

As retirement approaches, Spiwak can reflect on how much she’s enjoyed her time at Woodland.

“[I will miss] going to the games, seeing the kids, listening to them the next day tell me how they did,” Spiwak said. “That was the core part of all of this, especially with the coaches. I don’t see the teachers as much, but I’m with the coaches every day.”

Spiwak was working as a long-term sub in the Region 16 district office in 2001. Fellow Beacon Falls parent June Rydzik, who was then-principal Arnold Frank’s administrative assistant, told her about an upcoming vacancy in the athletics office, and the rest is history.

“I have the best job in the region, by far,” Spiwak said.

She and Scavone both took their jobs in 2002, right before most of Woodland’s teams prepared to play varsity sports for the first time. She recalls those wild-west times before scoreboards, bleachers and lights and pridefully compares them to what now exists — thanks in part to her.

“We had no [football] concession stand,” Spiwak said. “We had parents with tents selling hamburgers, people bringing [lifts] so we could have coaches above the field. Parents built dugouts. The backstops [on the baseball and softball fields] were shells that almost killed Ryan Zsiga, so the parents came to dig them up and move them back. It was all the families we hung around with for all those years, and all we cared about was making sure we had successful athletics.”

She knew something was working when she was waiting in line at the 2004 Class S softball final, Woodland’s first berth in a state championship game.

“There were people in line saying, ‘Who the hell is Woodland?’” Spiwak remembered. “For years, people hated that this upstart school was so successful.”

All of that was part of the goal she and Scavone set early in their first year together.

“Dan and I used to say that we wanted a college-level program,” Spiwak said. “We wanted the rules perfect. Keeping everything perfect in a changing world [was tough]. Parents never used to talk to coaches, but now they do, so I had to be that liaison between parents and coaches.”

Those first few years also gave Spiwak the opportunity watch her children play. Jay, a 2006 graduate, ran cross country and played baseball, while Rachel, a 2008 grad, played soccer and basketball while throwing in outdoor track.

“To see my own kids play was so rewarding,” said Spiwak, who says that she and her husband plan to be flexible over the next few years to travel and visit family.

She knows that the next stage of life will be an adjustment, although the changes Woodland must make without her will take a long time to sink in.

“It’s just been a part of my everyday life,” Spiwak said. “I can’t imagine not knowing the kids who are wearing the Woodland uniforms and the coaches. I’m going to miss being with all these people. These are some of the best people ever. Woodland is really lucky. Schools don’t get a Loren Luddy, Jeff Lownds, Mike Magas, Jim Amato — we got them all at the same time. I’m going to miss being part of this group.”

We, too, will miss Spiwak. No matter how long it’s been between visits to games, seeing her on the sidelines was a reminder that Woodland will always be home to the thousands of alumni it’s produced. There has been no more devoted supporter of the Hawks than Jill Spiwak, and for that, everyone who felt her support over the years owes immeasurable thanks.

Thankfully, Spiwak said she won’t be a complete stranger to the sidelines. After all, she owns by leaps and bounds the all-time record for most time spent at Woodland sporting events, and she intends on keeping her name at the top of the list — even from her superfan colleague.

“I definitely have the most games attended at Woodland, and I will have to come back for more,” Spiwak said. “Nancy Manning can’t beat me.”

Reach Kyle Brennan at kylebrennan1@yahoo.com.