Woodland players form team in independent football league

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

BEACON FALLS — There will be real football played atop Rimmon Hill this fall.

The Blackshirts, a team composed mostly of players from Woodland with a few others from Derby and Seymour, have joined the Connecticut High School Independent Football League and are set to open their six-game season this Halloween.

The last few months have been a roller coaster for football players and coaches. Throughout the summer, the CIAC planned on sponsoring traditional 11-on-11 football. They allowed conditioning and even a few full-contact practices before pressure from the Connecticut Department of Public Health finally forced the season’s cancellation Sept. 3.

The CIAC’s message was that teams could engage in 7-on-7 football this fall and hopefully await a shortened season in the spring.

That wasn’t good enough for many local players.

“In the summer, my teammates and I never had any idea what was going to happen,” Woodland junior Jason Palmieri said. “All we could do was go to practice, follow the rules, and wait for a decision. Ever since the decision from the CIAC (canceling the) fall season, I heard rumors about the independent league and immediately wanted to be part of it. Just the idea of playing 11-on-11, real, tackle football caught my eye.”

The idea appealed especially to senior players, some of whom faced the possibility of never playing a competitive football game again.

“It means a lot to us, especially the seniors,” Woodland senior Justin Petta said. “When we found out about this independent league starting, pretty much all of us immediately said yes. We are so appreciative to have this chance.”

Two independent leagues in Connecticut began to organize shortly after the cancellation, although they have done so without seeking much public or media attention in part because there are many officials who oppose plans to play 11-on-11 football during a pandemic.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Oct. 19 that the state government had no plans of shutting down either of the leagues, according to the Hartford Courant. The Courant reported that Lamont sees sports decisions as “a local priority” and he views most sports-related COVID-19 risks as “not the nature of the sport so much, but it’s all the social activities around the sport.”

Region 16 gave permission for the club to use Woodland’s football equipment and field, which provided the upstart organization a luxury that many other club teams have not enjoyed. It also tamped down the per-player cost of the team, which is expected to be at least $500 per player for the six-game season.

The Fairfield County Football League began play Oct. 17, while the Connecticut High School Independent Football League was slated to have its first scrimmages Oct. 24.

The Blackshirts, which derives their nickname from a moniker used within the Woodland football program for years, have about two dozen players on the roster, including five from Derby and two from Seymour.

“So far, I think we look really good,” Palmieri said. “We added some kids from Derby and Seymour, and it really just filled the holes in our team that we needed (to fill). It’s been a lot better than the practices that we were having when we had to follow CIAC (guidelines) — a lot less restrictions right now. We haven’t had any problems yet.”

Although the Woodland coaching staff isn’t involved with the Blackshirts, the staff does have plenty of ties to the Hawks. Former captains Edit Krivca, Carter Amore and Joe Shea, all 2019 Woodland graduates, are leading the way, along with help from a couple of parents.

The team’s opponents include teams based out of Pomperaug, Oxford, North Branford, New Hartford, Stonington and Haddam-Killingworth. Only 150 people will be allowed at Woodland for the games, and those spots will be reserved for the players, their families, and other gameday staff.

While there probably won’t be any championships at stake, the chance to play real football this fall is beneficial to the student-athletes in many ways.

“The goal is to get just that football experience that I wait for and work for all year,” Palmieri said. “For me and a lot of the guys on the team, we would like to get (game) film and exposure to get noticed by colleges. Also, for some of these guys, they will never play football again, so this season is all they have left. We’re all trying to make the best of it.”

“At the end of the day, we are playing for the love of the game,” Petta said. “I will be playing in college, but I didn’t decide to play this year just for film to show coaches. I love this team, and football brings all of us joy and keeps us sane during this tough time.”