BY KEN MORSE
Even after the retirement of Naugatuck’s legendary swim coach Jim McKee, his influence is still being felt in the Naugatuck-Woodland rivalry. In his final years at Naugy, McKee and his Greyhounds ran off a string of three straight NVL runner-up trophies.
When he stepped down after 42 years patrolling the pool deck for the boys team, Naugy had a 392-188 record, 16 NVL titles, two Class L runner-up finishes and one state open runner-up.
In the first five years of the new Woodland-Naugy rivalry, the Greyhounds could only boast one NVL championship. That came in 2002 and was led by All-American diver and current Naugatuck athletic director Brian Mariano.
Over the next 12 years, the Hounds won four NVL titles (2007-10), shortly followed by four straight runner up finishes (2016-19). McKee also had a hand in the Hawks’ success having coached Mike Magas as a senior in his first year at the helm of Naugy in 1976.
“When I first took over at Woodland in 2004, we were still a building program,” said Magas, who recently stepped down after 19 seasons. “I did both the boys and girls for a while, then Tom Currier took over the boys in a four-year span while I went and coached at Watertown for six years. When Brendan (Heller) came on as head coach in 2021, I came on as an assistant for one year just to get him going.”
When Woodland began to turn the tables on Naugy, it was another former swimmer of McKee, Heller (Class of 2008), that guided the Hawks to victory. In his first year in 2021, Woodland followed back-to-back third place finishes by finishing as runner-up to Holy Cross.
In 2022, Woodland (880 points) secured the first ever boys NVL championship, getting past Oxford (836) with Naugy (564 points) finishing a distant fourth. The Hawks then went on to finish as Class S runner-up.
“When Woodland was just getting off the ground, I swam for Naugy and we used to just crush them every year,” said Heller. “My first year here at Woodland we gave it a run and finished 10 points behind Holy Cross as runner-up. That only stoked the fire and we came out last year and just took it home. What a great feeling, and the crowd was really excited.”
The Greyhounds have always shown the ability to put very talented and accomplished swimmers in the pool. Following a four-year run of NVL titles, Kyle Conrad and Harold Hersted graduated in 2011. Conrad and Hersted wound up on the Greyhounds’ all-time top 10 list in four events each.
When you think about Woodland boys swimming, it’s hard not to recognize Riley Clark (2019), three-time NVL diving champion, and D.J. Mulligan (2022), two-time NVL diving champion.
Along the way, there was Greg Cerrato (2006) and Patrick O’Dell (2012), who were both athletes of the decade. Aidan Music (all-state, Class of 2014) and Andy O’Dell (four-time All-NVL) were part of the turnaround for the Hawks.
While Naugy was never short on talent with Jon Kunces (Class of 2002; two-time All-State, five-time top 10 in program record book), Chris Branco (2012; four-time NVL champion), Evan Bombery (2017; two-time top 10), Brian Goggin (2018; two-time top 10), and Spencer Maher (2019; three-time All NVL).
Naugy assistant coach Austin Herb, a 2019 graduate, had the unique perspective finishing as runner-up all four years of his varsity career.
“It just so happened that Holy Cross had a deep, talented squad those four years and we just came up short,” said Herb, “but my favorite part of being a Greyhound was having my brother Steven on the team as a freshman during my senior year,” said Austin Herb. “We got to be teammates that year and that has such special memories for me.
“I know in my senior year we lost to Woodland but I was on my class choir trip to Italy so we didn’t have a full roster for that meet. But yes, anytime we went up against Woodland it was huge.”
The rivalry continues to build and the best is yet to come with Woodland boasting last year’s 500 freestyle Class S state champion and Hawk record holder Alex Weisenbacher (4:55.42). Chase Starzman, Nicholas Christiano and Andrew Princic provide quality depth.
Naugy is far from being out of it with Hudson Bombery, Eric Fortney, Blake Stone, Jayson Main and Jack Healy giving the Hounds a presence to be dealt with.
“Well, I’ve only been part of this rivalry for a couple of seasons. but they tend to pack the stands when we go against one another,” said Naugy coach Dan Knepple. “We are looking to swing things back in our direction, but we need to match their depth first and we are not quite there yet. We are building things back up.”
The NVL championship swim meet will take place on March 1, after the Citizen’s News has gone to press, but stay tuned for a complete coverage in our March 8 edition.
Tide turning in Naugatuck-Woodland boys swim rivalry
BY KEN MORSE