Hawks shaping up to be a contender

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Woodland’s Steph Dumond, the Hawks’ leading goal scorer from last season, moves the ball up field during practice Aug. 31 as her teammates close in and head coach Joe Fortier looks on. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — Woodland’s first Naugatuck Valley League championship in school history came all the way back in 2004, courtesy of the Hawks girls soccer team.

The girls have contended nearly every year since, but they haven’t gotten over the hump.

That could change this fall. Woodland returns one of the best offenses in the entire league and a goalkeeper coach Joe Fortier calls the best in the entire area.

Alma Rizvani, entering her fourth year as a starter, posted eight shutouts in 20 games last season. She’s one of the last remaining pieces of a defense that graduated three starters, including four-year starters Kelly Boucher and Kelly Sherman.

Even with turnover in the defense, Rizvani gives Fortier plenty of confidence in his back line.

“Alma Rizvani is the best returning goalkeeper in the league,” Fortier said. “I’ve seen about 10 or 15 teams play this preseason and she’s the best one in the area. She was thrown into the fire as a freshman and she works very hard. She gets underlooked sometimes. When I give my speeches after games or in practice I forget about her sometimes because she’s so good.”

The Hawks are just as strong on the other end of the field, too. Returning all-state midfielder Keri DeBiase controls the offense that may be the most explosive in the league this season.

Woodland midfielder Keri DeBiase, who was an all-state player last year, runs up for a shot during practice Aug. 31. DeBiase will be the centerpiece of the Hawks’ offense again this season. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Strikers Steph Dumond and Audra Blewitt will be the main beneficiaries of DeBiase’s play in the middle. Dumond led the team in scoring last year.

“We have a player in Keri DeBiase who makes everyone around her better by distributing the ball,” Fortier said. “Steph and Audra up front can really score some goals. But we don’t want to rely on one player. I would much rather have five players score 10 goals rather than have one player score 20.”

Fortier wants other players besides DeBiase to step up in crucial moments. In last year’s NVL semifinal loss to Naugatuck, a match that went to penalty kicks, he said the team relied too heavily on DeBiase instead of making plays around her.

“It’s going to take everyone coming together as a team,” Fortier said. “In that Naugatuck semi, we really looked to get Keri the ball to do something magical. You can’t win championships that way. We need more depth and other players to be more confident and not to rely on her. I think the confidence is there but we’ll need to see it in the games.”

Fortier said the team’s potential offensive prowess is different than his usual teams’ strength on defense.

“My philosophy has always been defense first, so this is a bit new for me,” Fortier said. “I think we still do have the defense but it’s about finding out how to play together. I hope we don’t have to rely on three or four goals a game because offensive slumps happen.”

Andrea Piccolo, Alaina Neddermann and Arianna Caruso are also among the team’s seven returning starters.

The Hawks host St. Paul on Tuesday afternoon to start the season before hosting Sacred Heart on Thursday.