By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
BEACON FALLS — The Woodland boys basketball team simply ran out of games.
After an inconsistent and sometimes sloppy start to the condensed season, the Hawks peaked at the end of their campaign. They went 4-2 to close out the regular season, and those two losses were highly competitive defeats against Waterbury Career and Holy Cross.
In the Naugatuck Valley League tournament first round March 20, Woodland edged Kennedy, 62-61, to earn the first league tournament victory in program history. The Hawks almost pulled off a quarterfinal shocker but fell to St. Paul, 52-49, on March 22.
Woodland coach John Mariano pointed to a 55-47 loss to Ansonia on Feb. 26 as a turning point for the Hawks.
“We were struggling with shooting and playing sloppy,” Mariano said. “I felt we let other teams dictate the tempo of the game. A turning point in our season was the loss to Ansonia. We had to regroup, and that Sunday at practice, the kids were awesome and super energetic. We always have energetic practices, but that one was different. Since that point, we were intense and engaged and sharp in games. We started rattling off wins.”
One of their most impressive efforts was the 78-68 win over Seymour on March 9. The Wildcats won 11 games, claimed the NVL Copper Division title and reached the league semifinals.
Woodland’s effort in the postseason pleased Mariano. In the win over Kennedy, Rob Moriarty (19 points), Nathaniel Smith (17 points) and Nate Bodnar (12 points) all finished in double figures in a neck-and-neck game. The Hawks held a 62-56 lead with 90 seconds left and survived a late rally.
“I thought it was a big deal for Woodland to beat a city team in the NVL tournament,” Mariano said.
Against St. Paul in the quarterfinals — the Hawks’ first appearance in the round of eight since 2013 — Woodland went toe to toe with the second-ranked team in the league and held a 20-18 halftime edge. Smith (15 points), Bodnar (14 points) and Moriarty (10 points) all finished in double figures again, while Joey Giuliani added eight points.
“We played St. Paul tough,” Mariano said. “We just didn’t get enough done in the half-court offense, but to hold St. Paul to 52 points — there were so many positives in the second half of the year. I was proud of the kids.”
Although the Hawks finished 7-7 in a shortened season, Mariano said there were countless benefits to playing as much as they did. For one, it allowed seniors Conrad Filippone, Giuliani and Smith to play one last time and mentor younger players. Smith averaged 18 points per game, while Giuliani netted 14 a night.
“We were blessed with three great seniors this year who made the coaching staff’s jobs a lot easier,” Mariano said. “Conrad, Joe, and Than are extremely well-rounded guys who worked hard every day, paid attention and were committed to the team. For our younger guys to have the opportunity to be around those guys for two months, that will go a long way toward where we want to go as a program.”
The season also gave opportunities for younger players, such as Bodnar, Moriarty and point guard Brady Anderson to get comfortable with Mariano’s program. The second-year coach installed a motion offense last season, and he knew the program needed more reps with it to improve.
“I was so thankful that we got to go on this journey together this year,” Mariano said. “It was huge for the development of our program. I changed the style a little last year — all man-to-man on [defense] and motion-based on offense — so with that type of style, you need to commit to that style. Any time it’s flow-based and motion-based, you need to play to get that chemistry, so it was huge for these kids to play together in that same style.
“You saw that at the end of the year as they learned to share the ball and make the right basketball play,” Mariano continued. “It was huge in getting us to play the way we want to play. Having intense practices goes a long way in helping the kids to understand the expectations moving forward into the program.”