Last line of defense

Woodland boys soccer goalie A.J. Oliveira, left, and girls goalie Jenna Pannone have mastered their craft in the net. –KEN MORSE
Woodland boys soccer goalie A.J. Oliveira, left, and girls goalie Jenna Pannone have mastered their craft in the net. –KEN MORSE

BEACON FALLS — At first glance it almost seems impossible. Trying to stop a soccer ball from going into a net that stands 8 feet high and 24 feet wide appears to be one of the hardest things to do in sports.

With Jenna Pannone in net for the girls and A.J. Oliveira on the boys’ side, the Hawks boast keepers that have mastered their craft.

Pannone may be the most successful goalkeeper in school history by the time she graduates. The senior has amassed 26 career shutouts and has allowed a 24 goals in 42 regular season games.

It comes as no surprise that the Hawks have a combined 59-13-12 overall record in her four-year career at Woodland under the leadership of head coach Cait Witham, another net minder who was All-State at Woodland and the top senior in the NVL in 2005.

Oliveira is a unique talent who can play midfield, forward and defense along with being a feisty keeper in the net. That creates a bit of a quandary for 14-year head coach Tony Moutinho, as to where to play his all-around soccer star.

Oliveira started in net during his sophomore season, making 12 saves in a 4-1 loss to Naugatuck in the season-opener. Needing a little more spark on offense he was moved to the offensive side of the ball and helped Woodland recover to win four of the last five games and qualify for the NVL and state tournaments.

As a junior, Oliveira led the Hawks to the NVL championship game with two shutouts in the league tournament.

This season, both goalkeepers are leading their respective teams again and have them sitting high in the NVL standings.

The girls, the defending NVL champions, are riding high with a 9-1 record after a 5-0 win over Torrington Oct. 6 and a 5-1 win over Oxford Tuesday.

Pannone made three saves in the net versus Torrington and six against Oxford.

The Woodland boys are a surprising 9-1-1 and pushing Naugatuck, Watertown and Oxford for the top spot in the league. The boys beat Torrington, 4-2, Oct. 7 and got past Oxford, 3-1, on Tuesday.

Oliveira record five saves versus Oxford and the goal he allowed was on a penalty kick.

Pannone and Oliveira represent the last line of defense for their teams, but know their success is predicated on the players in front of them.

“Without those defensive players out in front of the net we wouldn’t be making the run that we are right now,” Oliveira said. “Xavier (Gibson) leads our defensive line and he leads it well. In my opinion he is the best defender in the league.”

The Woodland boys have also relied on junior Andrew Spofford, the back-up goalie, in the net and it’s that kind of depth that has led the Hawks to a fast start on the season. Gibson and Zach Powanda, Ryan Swanson and Tim Mendes lead the defensive unit.

The girls have sophomore Alanna Carasone backing up in net, but for a better part of three seasons it has been Pannone standing in the way of opponents.

“Without our defense we wouldn’t be as successful as we are,” Pannone said. “The defense has always been the key. Especially this year they have all stepped up and filled in some big roles after losing last year’s leader Shea Geary.”

Eliza Smith, Micheala Mastropietro, Haley Wolfanger and Olivia Kotsaftis lead the defense for the girls.

A season after the boys made a run to the NVL title game and the girls made their deepest run in the state tournament, Pannone and Oliveira are looking to make their senior seasons ones to remember.

“We always want to win and I have had that desire ever since I put on this uniform,” Oliveira said. “We don’t look at our opponent’s record when we step out onto that field. Every team is a good team and we need to come ready to play. You have to be ready to play every game and not underestimate any team or you will lose.”

“Being the first Woodland girls soccer team to reach the state semifinals last year was the best feeling I ever felt on the soccer field,” Pannone said. “This is a very good team and if we continue to work hard we can take it to the next step and play for a state championship, and that would be a great way to end my high school career.”

The girls will host Sacred Heart on Friday before visiting Bethel on Saturday. They will be back home Oct. 18 to play Holy Cross on senior night.

The boys be on the road Friday against Sacred Heart and Oct. 18 versus Holy Cross.