Budding athletics helped establish community at Woodland

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Woodland’s Michelle Palomba was one of the top runners for the Hawks in their inaugural cross country season in 2001. Her performance at the NVL cross country championships in 2001 made her the school’s first All-NVL athlete. -NAUGATUCK NEWS

This is the third story of our annual series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in local sports history. This week’s story is a sequel to last week’s look at the 20-year anniversary of the beginning of the athletics program at Woodland Regional High School, examining the ups and downs of the Hawks’ first seasons.

The anticipation and excitement surrounding the September 2001 opening of Woodland Regional High School — and its athletics program — was palpable as the day came closer.

Until then, Beacon Falls and Prospect students would graduate from Long River Middle School, and many of them would never see each other again.

Throw a dart at any school in the area — Naugatuck, Seymour, Wolcott, Masuk, a Catholic school, a tech school, you name it — and you’d find Region 16 students. Fortunes changed when voters approved Woodland’s construction in the fall of 1998, and the magic moment was finally approaching.

“The towns had come together and built the school, and the school was a beautiful facility,” said Jeff Lownds, a retired Long River teacher who still coaches cross country and track at Woodland. “The kids were excited that they were going to stay together and not branch off to different high schools. They were excited that we were going to have sports, too.”

Arnold Frank, the now-retired principal who molded Woodland from the start, knew sports would be the key to building the culture and community he wanted.

“It was the one thing that everyone could see,” Frank said of the athletics program. “It’s one of the most visible parts of a high school, and it gave us name recognition.”

But Frank found himself needing to tamp down expectations in Prospect and Beacon Falls. After all, most of the Hawks sports programs would only compete at the junior-varsity level, most of the school’s athletics facilities weren’t ready to host practices or competitions yet, and success in the traditionally competitive Naugatuck Valley League wouldn’t be any guarantee.

“I really had to convince a lot of people that the goal of the athletics program wasn’t to win; it was to get kids involved,” Frank said. “I was more interested in how many kids we had involved than I was with winning. But people in the community wanted to win right away at everything.”

Loren Luddy, who was set to join Woodland after coaching soccer and softball at tradition-rich Naugatuck High, was skeptical at first.

Woodland’s Christina Hallinan, right, controls the ball during a game against Torrington in the fall of 2001. –NAUGATUCK NEWS

“I came from Naugatuck, where everyone knows what the community support is like, and I didn’t know what it would be like in a two-town school,” Luddy said. “But the community was definitely behind us.”

“Fortunately, we had the community that bought in,” said Chris Anderson, the school’s first football coach. “They wanted a high school for a very long time and they were very excited to get it open. Everyone was gung-ho about the programs. Everyone was aggressive about fundraising and always dropping off their kids at any time.”

And, as Lownds noted, the Hawks happened to have a promising group of youngsters headed to the new school.

“We all knew that we had some pretty good athletes who could start this off,” Lownds said. “Everybody was really invested. There was a lot of pride in Woodland from Day 1.”

Anderson’s football team was still two years away from joining the heavyweights of the NVL, but it seemed like a separate lifetime at first.

“It was constant recruiting within the region to get kids to come out to play,” Anderson said. “I was interviewing coaches and trying to build a staff. We were just trying to figure out where to practice because our field wasn’t ready yet. We had to bus to Laurel Ledge to practice. It was soup to nuts, really.”

Anderson built up so much excitement around the gridiron that it actually became a problem.

“We didn’t wear uniforms the first year,” Anderson recalled. “They only ordered 40 sets of uniforms and we had 60 players, so we decided as a team — and Dr. Frank even came to this meeting — that because everyone couldn’t be in uniform, that we would wear our practice uniforms during games. In the beginning, we only had 40 helmets. In practice, we would have one area where we’d wear helmets and another area where we’d do some drills without helmets.”

The Hawks opened up their JV-only season at Canfield Park in Prospect by beating Kennedy High.

“I don’t know why that memory sticks out as a seminal moment in our school’s history, but I just remember standing on the sidelines on a beautiful fall day,” Frank said. “It was exciting to see kids in Woodland uniforms playing football. It was just another sign that we were on our way. So much of the first memories tied around football because it was so successful.”

The original plan called for JV-only football again in 2002, but Anderson got permission from Frank and the CIAC to play an 11-game independent varsity schedule that year with 18 freshmen and sophomores starting.

“Anytime you build a beautiful house, it always starts with the foundation,” Anderson said. “You have a vision, but you have to plant the seeds and solve problems along the way. You have to put the kids through a lot of stress and adverse situations so that way when it’s their time, they’ve been there and done that.”

That, of course, led to the unprecedented success a few years later when the Hawks won back-to-back Class SS state and NVL titles in 2004 and 2005.

“When we won that first state football championship, Woodland High School was a name,” Frank said.

The girls soccer program, on the other hand, was filled with jubilation from the first practices and scrimmages.

“I remember there was so much excitement all the time,” Luddy said. “We practiced at the (Beacon Falls) Rec because our fields weren’t ready yet, and every kid was always early for the bus, ready to go. A couple of times when our bus wasn’t there, they’d throw their bags in my and (Lisa) Olivere’s cars and just jog to the Rec.”

If the Hawks weren’t running, they were singing.

“I remember our very first scrimmage,” Luddy recalled. “We got off the bus — I think it was at Wamogo — and we’re walking up the hill, and Alicia Salvatore just started belting the song, ‘We are the Hawks.’ They literally made up the song while they were walking up the hill for our first scrimmage. They sang that song every game for four years.”

Although the Hawks went 4-12 in that first JV season — “they got a little bit beat up that year,” Luddy admitted — the positive energy of the first soccer team paid dividends in 2004 when the Hawks won the school’s first NVL championship.

When Luddy switched coaching hats in the spring and headed to the softball diamond, she encountered a different vibe. While most youth soccer players from both towns used to play for Prospect Soccer, youth softball programs in Beacon Falls and Prospect were separate at the time.

“They were excited to be a team, but they had never played together like the soccer girls had,” Luddy said. “The soccer team had a certain confidence about them, but the softball team was very serious about establishing themselves as good players. Tara Shingola was very methodical about her pitching. They set about making softball a strong team. They were hard workers.”

Woodland’s Alysse Lembo sets for a dig during a match against Naugatuck in the fall of 2001. -NAUGATUCK NEWS

That approach paid off, too. After a JV season in 2002, the Hawks reached the Class S state semifinals in 2003 and the finals in 2004, the first Woodland team to enjoy such state tournament success.

While most Woodland teams played a JV schedule in 2001-02, Lownds walked into a different situation as the cross country and track and field coach.

“Dr. Frank told us, ‘You have freshmen and sophomores, but you’re going to have a varsity team,’” Lownds recalled. “I was fine with that. I’d be a liar if I said wins and losses don’t matter, but we always want to make it a good experience for the athletes so they have something to take away from it into the real world.”

Lownds also had the advantage of previously teaching and coaching some of his runners at Long River, who helped achieve the Hawks’ first varsity success.

In fact, many of Woodland’s firsts came from Lownds’ teams. The boys cross country team earned the Hawks’ first varsity win, and Michelle Palomba’s performance at the NVL cross country championships made her the school’s first All-NVL athlete. In the spring, Gina DellaRose won the 3200-meter race at the Class S championships to make her Woodland’s first All-State athlete.

“We were very fortunate to have some athletes who could step in right away and compete at a varsity level,” Lownds said. “That second year, our track program really took off.”

Since then, the cross country and track programs have won 30 league championships.

The Hawks have enjoyed plenty of success over the past two decades, thanks in part to multi-sport athletes. That symbiosis among coaches and programs started as soon as Woodland’s doors opened.

“We always encouraged our kids to play all the sports they could,” Anderson said.

Lownds’ programs benefited most from cross-sport participation, as many athletes came to run or throw during their primary sport’s offseason. But athletes also supported each other from the beginning.

“When we finally started running home cross country meets, we actually used the sideline of the practice football field and then did a loop into Matthies Park,” Lownds said. “When we were on our way down or on our way up past the field, if [the football team] was practicing, [Anderson] used to have the guys line up and cheer for our guys as they came in.”

Athletes and coaches never had to look far to see support from their principal, either. Frank spent as much time on the sidelines as he did in his office.

“I remember when we scored our first goal — the other team had, like, six — but he was there for the celebration of our first goal,” Luddy said. “He knew he was building something from the ground up, and he wanted it to be with people who were all in.”

“I always did my job that way — I needed to be at everything,” Frank said. “I just felt a sense of commitment that people needed to see me and feel my support. I did that for 13 years. I never saw it as a separate part of the job; I always thought of it an essential part of the job. That wasn’t just with athletics; that was with band, drama, anything.”

Luddy also remembers the unique work ethic the first few classes of Woodland athletes brought to the field.

“I remember those first few teams always came to practice ready to work hard,” Luddy said. “I don’t ever remember having to tell anyone to hustle for years. It was just fun to have all these kids who just loved to play the game.”

Two decades later, the Hawks’ buzz and spirit are as strong as ever. Pep rallies are ferocious, and student-section blackouts show up during all three seasons. But for those who were there at the beginning, there will never be any feeling as unique as the elation shared by students and coaches in Woodland’s nascent athletics program.

“It was a level of excitement that I think only people who experience a first or second year in a new school understand,” Lownds said. “There was no anxiety about whether we were going to compete. It was more like, ‘Let’s go.’”