BEACON FALLS — First-year Woodland girls soccer coach Cait Witham had full control of practice Tuesday afternoon. It was strange to think, then, that Witham is just seven years removed from her senior year as a Hawk in which she earned All-State honors as a goalie.
Witham takes over the program this season after spending the last few years as the junior varsity coach under Joe Fortier. The 2006 graduate gives Woodland its first alumni coach in any sport, but that’s not why she said she feels some pressure entering this season.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking, mostly because our girls soccer program has a very long history of being successful,” said Witham, who played at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford. “They’re big shoes to full, between coming after coach [Loren] Luddy and coach Fortier. They were both very good coaches and role models for the girls, so I’m excited but a little bit nervous.”
The squad Witham will put on the field shouldn’t give her any trepidation, though. Although the Hawks lost a few of their best players to graduation, they still boast what should be one of the best offenses in the Naugatuck Valley League.
Woodland averaged nearly 4 ½ goals per game during a regular season in which the Hawks went 15-1 overall and 14-0 in the NVL. They won their first Brass Division championship before falling to Watertown in the league final. Woodland also reached the Class M state quarterfinals before losing to Rocky Hill.
The biggest loss is that of Keri DeBiase, a four-year starter at midfield who is now playing at Southern Connecticut State University. Most of the offense ran through DeBiase in some manner, so opportunities will have to come from other places this season.
“Our offense will have to be more balanced,” Witham said. “Last year we relied very heavily on Keri scoring because she was a phenomenal player, but this year we’re going to have spread the field and get everyone some touches. We’ll have to see who’s playing well on each day.”
Steph Dumond, who missed more than half of last season with a broken arm, was also among the team’s leading scorers over the last four years. Her departure leaves more opportunities among the team’s talented forwards, including senior Audra Blewitt and sophomore Jess Rodrigues.
Witham also expects Arianna Caruso, Marisa Macek, Megan Lynch and Savannah Aviz to be regular contributors to the goal-scoring effort. Midfielder Alexa Casimiro will also be involved when she returns from a knee injury. Witham isn’t sure who will be the leading scorer because the team changes its approach based on opponents.
“It depends on the teams we play,” Witham said. “Sometimes it’s easier for our forwards to score and sometimes it’s easier for our outside midfielders to score. I expect it to be more balanced than it was last year, and we should have about six kids who contribute regularly.”
Although the Hawks’ offense poured in goals last season, the team’s real strength was its ability to keep the ball out of the net. With now-departed goalie Alma Rizvani in net, Woodland pitched shutouts in 12 of its 14 regular-season NVL games last year. Two of the Hawks’ top defenders return, though, in Andrea Piccolo and Shae Gerry.
“Our defense could be weak in front of her at times last year,” Witham said. “This year I don’t think we can do that.”
Woodland may be the favorite for another Brass Division title and is among the chief contenders for the league crown. Also in the conversation for the NVL championship is Naugatuck, the Hawks’ first opponent this season. The teams will meet Sept. 12 at Breen Field for a 6 p.m. start.