Woodland, Naugy share strong swim ties, and a rivalry

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BY KEN MORSE
CITIZEN’S NEWS
Woodland girls swim coach Mike Magas has been patrolling the pool deck for 20 seasons, taking the Hawks from upstarts to champions. Over those two decades his most fearless competitor across the pool was none other than legendary Greyhound coach Jim McKee.
“I grew up in Naugatuck and swam for coach McKee,” said Magas. “That was 45 years ago. That was his first season as head coach taking over for Jim Farrar. It’s pretty amazing how these things do come full circle.”
“Mike was my very first team captain,” said McKee. “And don’t forget another Naugy swimmer of mine, Brendan Heller, just led the boys to their first NVL championship and runner-up in Class S.”
It took Woodland a few years to get going. Naugy was the team to beat as the NVL champions in 2004 with six All-NVL selections, including Sarah Thomas and Laura Kunces.
“Mike will remember this, but he had been coaching a while, maybe 10 years when they beat us and he came up after the meet to tell me that was the first time Woodland beat Naugatuck,” McKee said. “Now we are chasing them as they have had the team to beat over the past several years. Having a good group of kids is nice, but you have to have the depth if you are going to win any championships.”
In fact in wasn’t until 2009 before the Hawks made some waves in the pool, finishing third in the NVL. Woodland went 9-3 and was led by All-State selection Heather Chucta. Then Magas coached a group of eighth graders at Long River Middle School and he just knew he had something special.
“Naugatuck was always a powerhouse,” said Magas. “We always aspired to be like them as one of the top teams in the league. I think because both schools are in such close proximity the intensity level is just always there no matter what kind of season you are having.”
“I had taken over the middle school program. When they were eighth graders, that class of 2017-2018, I just knew we had something special going on there. It was fun to watch it develop. I told them back in eighth grade that before they graduated Woodland they would win our very first NVL championship and they did.”
Over the next few years the Hawks took flight and in 2017 Woodland had secured its very first NVL championship. That team was led by Dia Gawronski, who holds seven of the eight individual team records.
The Greyhounds weren’t going anywhere as they continued to be one of the top teams in the league, earning runner-up in 2018, so the battle between Woodland and Naugatuck continued to churn up the waters in the deep end of the pool.
The Hawks swam to another NVL title in 2019 and after a pandemic shortened season in 2020, came back and won it again in 2021. The Greyhounds were right there, staking their claim as NVL runner-up in McKee’s final season on the pool deck.
“If you are Woodland you just have to beat Naugatuck, and if your Naugatuck you have to beat Woodland,” said McKee. “I think the rivalry has helped keep that intensity level. It showed last year as there we were, the top two teams in the league, and that speaks to the rivalry between these two teams.”
Dan Knepple has taken over both the boys and girls team at Naugatuck, filling in some very big shoes left by coach McKee and his 24 NVL titles and 664 victories.
“It’s only fitting that in his last year his team was the NVL runner-up and Woodland won the title,” said Knepple. “It speaks volumes as to what this rivalry has become. I think it has helped push both teams to even greater heights when they face one another. Even if you are not swimming for a title and no matter what the record you can just feel the intensity level going up a notch when these two teams meet.”