A little more than 10 years ago, a new place called Woodland Regional High School was about to open, smack dab in the heart of the Naugatuck Valley.
The Valley, of course, is synonymous with a lot of things, but few things are more closely associated with it than high school football. So for Woodland to really become part of the Valley, it needed to have a football team—and it needed to be good.
Principal Arnold Frank and athletic consultant Rich Calabro hired Derby High graduate Chris Anderson to start the program, and Anderson brought in other coaches from the Valley, including Ansonia High grad Tim Phipps.
They, with the rest of the staff and the kids who first populated the school in 2001, began work on what is one of the greatest Valley football stories of them all.
As construction at Woodland finished, Anderson’s freshmen and sophomores began practice in the open field at Laurel Ledge Elementary School. Nothing was there except an equipment trailer and some dirt. Needless to say, it was not all roses.
“Our first sets of pads were Pop Warner pads,” Phipps says. “Our first locker room was actually a classroom. Our first goalposts were PVC pipes anchored in 10-gallon buckets of concrete.”
Jared Katchmar, who became a three-year starting quarterback and is on the Mount Rushmore of Woodland greats, remembers the chaos of the first subvarsity season.
“About 20 kids quit that season, so we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Katchmar says. “The next season, [Anderson] wanted us to go varsity and we were getting killed. I was like, this guy is crazy.”
Crazy or not, Woodland prepared to play a full varsity schedule with zero seniors on the roster. Katchmar didn’t much care for Anderson’s no-nonsense practices.
“The practices were awful,” Katchmar says. “Every good player never really liked practice. We all wanted to get out. He made us practice a lot. We were working like dogs. That team wasn’t really that talented. That was the farthest thing from it. He just worked us so hard.”
The Hawks traveled anywhere they could get a varsity contest, as they weren’t set to join the Naugatuck Valley League in football until 2003. They earned their first win at St. Bernard in Uncasville.
“It was an important win because the kids were unsure,” Anderson says. “We started something like 18 sophomores in that game. They realized they could win at a young age.”
Those sophomores—Katchmar, Pat Krakowski, Matt Dorosh, Tim Hutvagner, Eric Moraniec, Mark LaFortune, and several others—only tasted victory twice more than season en route to a 3-8 record, which remains the worst in program history.
Woodland’s first season as a full varsity member of the NVL didn’t begin with a league game but instead with a game against New London, a perennial state power. The Hawks beat the Whalers, 35-20, and earned more than a victory.
“That team is a great program every year,” Katchmar says of New London. “After that, we knew we could compete with anybody.”
The following week, Woodland finally prepared for its initiation into the NVL with a game against Holy Cross, a 26-12 victory for the Hawks.
“I remember how intense that was,” Phipps says. “We came into an NVL that was very, very strong.”
“The NVL was good,” Katchmar says. “But the guys who were on our team had played together forever. We knew we could play.”
Oct. 31, 2003
Woodland and Naugatuck were meant to be rivals. For years, kids from Region 16 had no high school of their own, so many of them headed to the borough. But the new school on Back Rimmon Road gave Beacon Falls and Prospect a chance to compete against the town that lies between them.
Anderson calls it “amazing.” Katchmar says it was “euphoric.” But Phipps may best summarize the importance of Woodland’s insane, comeback, 40-37 win over Naugatuck that night.
“I think that was our program game,” Phipps says.
Woodland entered the game 5-2 and was coming off a disappointing, 26-19 loss to Wilby. More importantly, Katchmar wasn’t even sure if he could play against the 6-1 Greyhounds.
“I sprained my ankle in the Watertown game two weeks before,” Katchmar says. “I didn’t play against Wilby. It really was bad. I was on crutches two days before the Naugatuck game. [Trainer] Ray Donaghy had me in there getting constant treatment. I was skipping class to get treatment, and the teachers were good with it as long as I made up the work.”
Thank goodness for those teachers or else the Valley would not have seen one of the most impressive efforts by a quarterback in NVL history.
Katchmar finished 23-of-44 for 437 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. His effort inside the last two minutes of the game, in which he threw two touchdown passes to Jay Kymer and Krakowski less than a minute and a half apart, remains ingrained in his mind.
“We ran Hail Marys and all that stuff,” Katchmar says. “The plays that were run, I just ask myself, ‘Did that happen?’”
While still in a state of some disbelief eight years later, Katchmar is still able to recount the exact details from that fourth quarter, including the moment-by-moment description of what happened on his game-winning, 16-yard touchdown pass to Krakowski on fourth-and-10 as time expired.
“Pat was all mad,” Katchmar says, describing how he switched Krakowski route with the pattern Matt Trzaski would usually run. “He didn’t want to run up the middle, so I put him on the outside. He made the play and it was pandemonium. I loved it.”
“That was important because it showed the kids they could compete against a Valley football team,” Anderson says. “Naugatuck has 100 years of tradition. To be able to beat them at that young stage of the program really set the tone that we could go far.”
Nov. 26, 2003
Valley football and Thanksgiving go together like turkey and cranberry sauce, like mashed potatoes and gravy. So for Woodland to be a real Valley football team, it needed Thanksgiving.
It just so happened that Seymour didn’t usually play on Thanksgiving. Two plus two equals four.
“I remember being excited because we had a Thanksgiving game that was a legitimate Valley football game,” Phipps says. “Growing up as a kid you were either at Ansonia-Naugatuck or Derby-Shelton. That was my hope that people would eventually say they were going to the Woodland-Seymour game.”
But the first game of the rivalry at DeBarber Field wasn’t a storybook ending to a fantastic first NVL season. Injuries, illnesses, and the Wildcats’ talent added up to a 41-14 beatdown, which ended the Hawks’ season at 8-3.
Anderson considers that loss the most important in school history.
“Sometimes you have to lose in order to win,” Anderson says. “We learned a lot about ourselves and what we needed to do to get to the next level. It was good in a way that it happened.”
Sept. 16, 2004
With most starters returning, the 2004 season held historic potential. But the view from the outside was different than the one from the inside.
“The offseason was insane,” Katchmar says. “A bunch of stuff was happening. We didn’t look too good. We were supposed to roll Watertown [in the first game], and they come out and went up, 7-0.”
“But then we put on a show.”
After the Indians’ first-quarter touchdown, the Woodland defense played 24 straight periods of scoreless football.
“They were so good,” Katchmar says of the defense, which allowed just 66 points all season and pitched seven shutouts. “We knew the defense was going to carry us through.”
Nov. 12, 2004
Woodland carried an 8-0 record into Ansonia’s Jarvis Stadium to meet the state’s most successful program in history.
“Leading up to that game, I told them, ‘You’re not somebody until you beat Ansonia,’” Anderson says. “The biggest thing was that those kids were not afraid going into that atmosphere. I think it was because they played varsity at such a young age. They had experienced a lot of adversity, so they didn’t care who we were playing.”
Katchmar recalls one particular Anderson tactic to help the team prepare for the biggest game in school history to that point.
“Before the season, he took us to every place we would play,” Katchmar says. “We went to the fields and took dirt and grass from each of the fields. Then we would bring it back to the weight room. We were driving up and down the Valley. It was crazy.”
That Friday night was a miserable, rainy, cold evening that saw Jarvis’ grass turn to mud. It was exactly like legendary Chargers coach Jack Hunt wanted it.
“We wanted to call off the game because it was pouring and it around 30 degrees,” Katchmar says. “Jack Hunt knew we wanted to throw the ball so he wanted to play that night. We wanted to play them on a nice day because we would have beaten them, 48-0.”
Woodland had to settle for a 21-0 win. It was the first time Ansonia was shut out in an NVL game since Naugatuck beat the Chargers, 22-0, in 1993.
Nov. 26, 2004
In just their second season as members of the NVL, the Hawks were going to host the league championship game against Seymour.
“For us, a lot of our guys went to Seymour prior,” Anderson says. “I don’t know if we believed we could beat Seymour. Coming into that game after suffering the loss that we did the year before, there might have been some doubt in their minds. But we believed without any evidence.”
Despite the game being moved from Wednesday night to Friday afternoon, fans flocked to Woodland like they never had before and never have since. At least 4,000 spectators filled the low-rise bleachers, lined the entire circumference of the fence three- or four-deep, and packed the grassy south hill to the top.
The teams traded the lead several times throughout the game. Seymour took an 8-0 lead, then Woodland scored 21 straight points to grab a commanding edge. But the Wildcats rallied with scores at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth to earn a 22-21 advantage.
“It was one of the greatest games I’ve ever been associated with,” Anderson says. “Two heavyweights were slugging it out. There were so many momentum changes back and forth. Really anybody could have won the game.”
Woodland drove down the field late in the fourth quarter and Katchmar hit Shane Kingsley on a 74-yard completion down the right sideline. But Kingsley had the ball knocked away from behind and the Wildcats recovered.
Still, the Hawks’ defense—which allowed over a third of the points it gave up all season to Seymour—made three straight stops, each accompanied with a timeout, on the ensuing drive to give Katchmar and Woodland one more shot starting at their own 46-yard line.
Katchmar, who was 17-of-25 for 340 yards and two touchdowns, connected four times with Jeff Jones for all 54 yards, including the game-winning, 12-yard touchdown pass with 47.4 seconds remaining to seal the program’s first NVL championship in a 27-22 win.
“Being the no-huddle offense that we had, it didn’t faze us to get down the field quickly,” Anderson says. “Fortunately, we made the plays and it went down in history.”
Nov. 30, 2004
The Hawks earned the No. 1 seed in the Class SS playoffs and opened with No. 4 Hartford Public on Tuesday night, just four days after winning the NVL title.
“We didn’t have any time to celebrate the NVL championship,” Anderson says. “Credit the kids for getting refocused for that game. Going from not thinking they’d be able to beat Seymour to beating them, you would think it could go to a young kid’s head.”
In perhaps the most physical, so-ugly-that-it’s-pretty game in program history, Woodland snuck out a 13-6 victory thanks to an early Katchmar touchdown run and a late scoring toss to Trzaski.
“That Hartford Public game should have been the state championship,” Katchmar says. “They were nasty. We probably shouldn’t have won the game. We were never losing, but they were a good football team.”
Dec. 4, 2004
In just their third varsity season, the Hawks were playing for a state championship. To make it even sweeter, they were facing rival Holy Cross at Trumbull’s McDougall Field.
After a sloppy first few minutes, Woodland routed the Crusaders, 35-0. The Hawks scored in each quarter as Krakowski ran for 175 yards and two touchdowns while Katchmar threw three touchdown passes to Jones, who earned the game’s MVP award.
“It was kind of like the perfect ending to a perfect story,” Anderson says. “We beat Holy Cross, which was another school that took our boys and girls from Region 16 for years, and how appropriate to play them. It was just a wonderful ending.”
The celebration on the field was only exceeded by the unprecedented support of cars and fire trucks that greeted the buses once they took Exit 23 on Route 8 North.
“It was crazy,” Katchmar says. “Disbelief a little bit. We knew we worked so hard since day one. You can’t piece together everything from practicing at Laurel Ledge to having our own school to our own lights. It was like a town effort. There were so many people that nobody ever talks about. They made the road so much better.”
Nov. 17, 2005
The road was still being paved late into the 2005 season. New quarterback Alex Dorosh and the crop of seniors led by Kingsley, Jones, Mike Stankus, and Jeff Temple helped stretch Woodland’s winning streak to 21 entering the NVL championship against Holy Cross.
The Hawks took a 7-0 lead on a second-quarter touchdown run by Jones. Woodland held that lead into the fourth quarter until the Crusaders tied it with 9:53 to play.
Later in the fourth, an interception-return touchdown gave Holy Cross a 14-7 lead with 5:17 left. Woodland squandered the ensuing possession and gave the ball back to the Crusaders inside their own territory with less than three minutes to go.
Enter Kingsley, who came up with perhaps the most Herculean play of his career on defense.
“You have a player like Shane Kingsley who understands he didn’t just need to stop them, but he needed to get the ball,” Anderson says. “We executed a stunt that we called a stinger stunt where we sent the free safety through the A-gap. He timed it perfectly and was able to dislodge the ball and give our offense a chance.”
With just 29 seconds to play, Dorosh hit Paul Brewer with a 29-yard touchdown pass. Justin Hilton’s PAT tied the game at 14 and sent it to overtime before Ryan Lewis punched in the game-winning touchdown from 3 yards out to give Woodland a 21-14 win.
“Credit our kids because they never believed that the game was over,” Anderson says. “Those kids played until the end no matter what the score was.”
Dec. 3, 2005
Woodland had its 22-game winning streak snapped by Seymour on Thanksgiving eve, and the Hawks were forced to the road for their Class SS semifinal. After an easy, 27-7 win over North Branford in the semifinal, Woodland prepared for a second-straight state title game against Brookfield.
The Hawks never trailed in the game but had to make a final defensive stand to preserve a 19-13 lead on Brookfield’s last drive. Inside the final minute, Kingsley made his second interception of the night just in front of the Woodland goal line to clinch the back-to-back state titles and earn the game’s MVP award.
“It was really surreal,” Anderson says. “You don’t realize what happened. Even now, I’ll step outside the boxes and look at what we accomplished and it’s like a dream. You can’t believe all that happened like it did. The seniors from ’05 wanted to leave their mark. The seniors from ’04 had done it, but they graduated and then people said, well now what can you do.”
Nov. 21, 2007
Not every great game in which Woodland took part went down in the books as a win for the Black and Gold. In what will forever be known in the Valley as the Fog Bowl, Seymour won its third-straight Thanksgiving eve game in a wild, 36-35 game.
Jon Murren had one of the best single-game rushing efforts in school history with 247 yards and three touchdowns. But after his final touchdown, a 33-yarder to bring Woodland to within one, the Hawks failed on a two-point conversion attempt.
“I remember [Seymour coach Paul] Sponheimer came up to me and said, that was a classic Valley football game,” Phipps says. “I agreed with him, but I remember wishing we were on the other end of it.”
Woodland qualified for the Class SS playoff for the third time in four years but lost to Seymour again. That playoff loss was the final game at Woodland for Anderson, who resigned to become a coach at the University of New Haven.
The Hawks’ unprecedented success in the first six years of the program came as a result of several factors, but one stands out above all.
“It comes down to Chris Anderson,” Phipps says. “That’s how it happened. He was a true leader. He was a person who knew how to take a group of individuals, mold them, and lead them in a common direction.”
“We were like the old Oakland Raiders,” Katchmar says of the 2004 squad, in particular. “We were Black and Gold instead of Black and Silver. We played defense and we had some crazy guys on that team. And Anderson was like Al Davis. His attention to detail is almost not human. He pulls out the craziest things and he’ll fine-tune it. We knew that if we could just play, he would win us a state title.”
But the players from the program’s infancy deserve just as much credit.
“Those kids back then were just different,” says current Woodland head coach Tim Shea, a Naugatuck High grad who joined the staff in 2002. “They went through so much when we went varsity and their first year when we didn’t have a locker room or a weight room. That group was so tight that they had this dying belief that they were going to come out on top, no matter what. To this day, they’re still that tight. They were the ones who got us to where we are now.”
“We pulled from kids whose parents played at Naugatuck and Seymour,” Phipps says. “To have their own thing, that meant something to those kids. I think about Jared Katchmar and the Kingsley family and Tim Hutvagner. You could tell it meant something to have your own school. It was special.”
Now, as Woodland’s 10th varsity season concludes, is as good a time as ever to evaluate the legacy of this first decade, which includes more winning seasons, great players, and a fourth playoff berth under Shea’s leadership.
“I’ve always had a lot of love for Valley football,” Phipps says. “To be a part of that and hopefully live up to that standard, to say we slugged it out against the big boys is what I want. I hope when we look back on all of this people say, Woodland played Valley football. They lived up to the Ansonias and the Seymours and the Naugatucks of the past.”
“After all these years, the community finally has a team to call its own,” Shea says. “We’re battling against 100 years of tradition there, 100 years of tradition there. We’ve accomplished a lot in 10 years. By no means are we satisfied with where we are. But as the years go on, when our players have kids and they want to play at Woodland, that’s when you really have a program.”
And all the memorable moments, crazy rallies, and historic victories combine to make it a decade that will live forever in the minds of those who coached, played, or watched them.
“They were all special,” Anderson says. “They were all pieces in different scenarios. I love them all.”
This feature appears in the Citizen’s News’ special 2011 Thanksgiving football section.