BEACON FALLS — It’s not how you start that makes all the difference; it’s how you finish.
That has been the message that Woodland boys basketball coach Tom Hunt has been trying to instill in his players ever since he took over the reins in 2007.
Hunt has seen the positive results of that theory in action, spending 10 years as an assistant coach at Sacred Heart and two years at Wilby. During his tenures in Waterbury, the Hearts reached the final four of the state championship four times and the Wildcats played in a 2006 state championship game.
It was a slow start for Hunt in his first season at Woodland as the Hawks managed just two wins. Steady progress has been made over the past four seasons and this year marked the third season in a row that Woodland qualified for the state tournament — the first time that’s ever happened for the Hawks.
Over the past two seasons Woodland has established itself as a team on the rise, qualifying for the Naugatuck Valley League tournament as well as the states. The recent success has been a long time coming.
“I think the biggest difference is that we have had four years with these seniors,” Hunt said. “It takes a little while to teach a new system and get everyone on the same page. We got off to a slow start five years ago but it’s been very rewarding to watch these kids grow and develop that confidence.”
Coming into the season, the Hawks had to try to put back the pieces from a team that went 13-10 the year before and made the NVL tournament for the first time.
There wasn’t a lot of depth but there were integral parts to build around. Seniors Ryan Angeloszek (14.4 ppg) and Billy Alfiere (9.9 ppg) along with Dan Giacomazzi and Dave Alves turned out to be good starting points.
From there, younger players stepped up. Junior center Kirk Chamenko developed into a force under the boards. Junior guards Dave Uhl and Steve Baeder gave the Hawks some stability in the backcourt.
And if the Hawks were looking for a go-to guy they didn’t have to look any further than sophomore Tanner Kingsley, whose 18.6 points per game made him the league’s third-leading scorer.
It took a little while for it to all come together. But the Hawks finished the regular season strong by winning its final four games to make both postseason tournaments.
“We are a much better team now than we were when the season started,” Hunt said during that late-season stretch. “We may not be the most talented team out there on the court. But there isn’t a team out there that is going to outwork us.”
That was quite evident in the way they played against Wilby in the quarterfinals of the NVL tournament. The No. 2 Wildcats had scored over 80 points seven times, over 90 four times and topped the 100-point mark once. They knocked off Woodland by 22 points in the regular season.
On paper, Woodland had no business being on the same court with the run-and-gun Wildcats. But when the game started, Wilby had to do everything it could to overcome the Hawks.
The Hawks also stuck with Bloomfield into the fourth quarter of the Class M state tournament first round, trailing by just three midway through the last period. It’s all about playing a full game for Hunt.
“Since I started here, I’ve preached about playing the entire 32 minutes,” Hunt said. “It doesn’t matter if you are up by 20 or down by 20. You play the full 32 minutes. It’s about having pride in the name on the front of those jerseys. The Hawks means something to these kids.”
After five years, Hunt thinks the school’s mentality toward basketball has changed and is helping the team improve every year.
“Now we have more kids coming out because they want to be a part of it,” Hunt said. “We have football and baseball players coming out and when I first got here that wasn’t happening. It’s because of the quality of the kids here at Woodland. Their work ethic, enthusiasm, respect for the coaches and teammates is something you don’t see very often and we need to see a lot more of it in this day and age. It’s that kind of attitude that is going to help them to be successful, not only on the court but in life well after they’ve played their last game.”