BEACON FALLS — Woodland’s record-setting quarterback returns to the gridiron for his senior year, so there shouldn’t be any questions about the Hawks, right?
Tanner Kingsley, who set a number of state and Naugatuck Valley League records in leading Woodland to the NVL Copper Division title and the Class S state semifinals, will enter his third and final year as the Hawks’ starter. But the left-hander will have to start it with a group of skill players who collectively have little varsity game experience.
Last year’s three leading wide receivers — Anthony Scirpo (78 catches, 1,219 yards, 25 touchdowns), Rahmi Rountree (56 catches, 779 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Brian Reis (45 catches, 414 yards, seven touchdowns) — all graduated, leaving a void in what was the strength of the offense.
Woodland will still operate in the spread — with a little higher dose of running, maybe — but it will be with a new cast of characters.
Senior Jack Pinho returns as the only starting wide receiver from last year. Juniors Mike Kenney and Dylan Abarzua also figure to crack the lineup at wideout, while senior tight end Levi Fancher could be more of a threat in the passing game this season.
“We’ll be OK,” said Woodland coach Tim Shea, who enters his sixth season with a 32-22 record. “We’re going to spread the ball around, and the guys who can catch it will be out there. The next group of guys who we are expecting to step up have been. Obviously it’s not what we had last year, but this is where we are.”
The Hawks also have to replace three offensive linemen who earned league honors last season (they return juniors Max McSperrin and Jake Laliberte) and their stable of running backs, which was banged up last season. This year, sophomores Sean McAllen and Coby Vaccarelli figure to share carries, along with senior Chris Slavin, who spent his first three years at Holy Cross.
“One thing we’re going to do better this year is establish the run better,” Shea said. “Sean McAllen and Coby Vaccarelli are running the ball, and Chris Slavin has been a pleasant surprise. We’ve always had this run stuff in there, but last year because of injuries we couldn’t use it.”
Kingsley should help the offense come together in time. He threw for a league-record 3,227 yards and a state-record 51 touchdowns last season. He also set the single-game state record with 615 passing yards against Seymour and established the single-game league mark with eight touchdown passes against both Naugatuck and Seymour.
But Kingsley won’t be able to help the Hawks’ depleted defense. Only three starters from that unit return, including defensive lineman Will Flormann, linebacker Levi Fancher and defensive back Taylor Tucciarone.
“We lost almost the whole squad, but we’re not going to use that as an excuse,” Shea said. “There will be a lot of guys going into their senior year who are looking for their turn. Hopefully they can jell. They need to get some swagger on ‘D’ and realize it’s about getting all 11 guys to the ball.”
Woodland opens the season Thursday with a home nonconference matchup against Branford. The Hawks’ NVL opener comes the following week against Crosby, and their Copper Division kickoff ensues with a game at Kennedy. The division should be stiff again this year with Naugatuck, St. Paul, Holy Cross and Woodland among the contenders.
“Everybody right now has their opinions of us, but we’ll know more once we start banging,” Shea said. “Our division could be very interesting and a bit of a grind. The season has a strange way of shaking itself out.”