Woodland shelves plan to move Thanksgiving game

Woodland’s Matt Zaccagnini (25) breaks free from a tackle by Seymour’s Josh Tilton (55) during last year’s Thanksgiving Eve game in Seymour. Woodland was considering moving the annual game to Thanksgiving morning but has put that plan on hold for the time being. –RA ARCHIVE

BEACON FALLS — Woodland athletic director Brian Fell isn’t talking turkey — there needs to be a change in the Hawks’ Thanksgiving rivalry with Seymour.

It nearly came with Fell’s idea to switch the game from its traditional Thanksgiving eve spot to Thanksgiving morning, like most other Connecticut rivalry games.

But staunch resistance from some in the football program and others in the community — including a petition that began to circulate until the game was changed back — convinced Fell to shelve the planned move for at least one more year.

Fell said his desire to change the game was not about scrapping the school’s tradition but rather trying to enhance it by seeing if a Thanksgiving morning game would increase the dwindling crowds.

“We’re looking for ways to increase attendance at the games because the kids deserve big crowds for their Thanksgiving games,” Fell said. “Our last two home Thanksgiving games have had poor crowds. We used to have to bus people in from a different parking lot. Now you can pull in and park in the upper parking lot at game time with no problem. That’s unheard of at any school I’ve ever been.”

Woodland’s Thanksgiving eve rivalry with Seymour began in 2003, the Hawks’ first year as members of the Naugatuck Valley League. The schools agreed to play a night game so they wouldn’t compete with the longstanding rivalries between Naugatuck and Ansonia, Derby and Shelton, and others.

The uniqueness of the game, coupled with both schools’ great success in the middle of last decade, brought fantastic crowds to the first few games. In 2004 — a year in which the game was played on Friday afternoon due to bad weather — the game attracted an estimated 5,000 fans to Beacon Falls.

Starting in 2008, though, the crowds have shrunk to 1,000 spectators or fewer. Everyone involved in the game agrees that the number is unacceptable. But not everybody agrees on why the attendance has shriveled or how to best improve.

Shane Kingsley, a 2006 Woodland graduate who played in the first three holiday games and brother of current Hawks quarterback Tanner, thinks the last few games haven’t meant enough on the field to encourage large crowds to come.

“I think to get more people the game has to mean something for both teams,” Kingsley said. “The crowds aren’t based on as much of what night the game is played as opposed to what the teams’ records are. If they have a good record, you’re going to see bigger crowds as the season goes on. You’re always going to get the diehard fans. But you’re never going to get the kids who don’t care about football if it’s not a big game.”

Fell thinks more specifically that students don’t want to be bothered anymore to go to a game played on that Wednesday night.

“We don’t have good crowds and kids don’t come to the games,” Fell said. “Kids are usually pretty honest and they say they don’t want to give up their Wednesday nights to go to the Thanksgiving games.”

Woodland coach Tim Shea has plenty of experience with Thanksgiving football in the Valley. In his 10th year coaching with the Hawks, he’s been part of every game against Seymour. But he also played for Naugatuck against Ansonia in some of the rivalry’s most memorable games.

“Crowds everywhere aren’t what they used to be,” Shea said. “Every Thanksgiving I show the kids some clips of when I played in 1990 at Nolan Field in front of 15,000 people. It’s too bad the kids can’t play with the big crowds. We’d love to get people out to watch.

“It is frustrating,” he continued. “All the work the kids put in, you’d like people to see the fruits of their labor. People always talk about being supportive, then they should come out. I tell the kids they’re playing for the community.”

Shea said the players were excited when the game was changed back to Thanksgiving eve and sympathized with those who wanted it to stay on its original night.

“Our own people feel very strongly about playing on Wednesday night,” Shea said. “A lot of the alumni and people associated with the school felt that Wednesday was our night. That started to sway me. I’m glad it’s back on Wednesday. This is our night.”

Kingsley said the uniqueness of Valley football on Thanksgiving eve is something that he still remembers.

“We knew we were one of the few games playing on that night so you got a sense that you were in the game of the week and your game was special,” he said. “It was under the lights and you still get the Thanksgiving feel because it’s our rival.”

Much of the opposition to changing the game came from diehard fans in the community. Bill Mis, a longtime Beacon Falls resident, started a petition when so many fans voiced their displeasure.

“I was dead set against it,” Mis said. “I generated a petition that was sent out to 20 or 30 people. In the meantime they acquiesced and changed it back. 99 percent of the emails I got said that changing it would be crazy. The tradition is the game is on Wednesday.”

Since the purpose of the planned move was to generate better crowds, Mis offered a suggestion of his own: changing the game time from 6 p.m. to 7.

“I can understand on a school night having the game at 6,” Mis said. “But any game that starts at 6 is tough for people to get to from work and those coming home from college. The game should be at 7.”

Fell said the book isn’t closed on switching the game to Thanksgiving in future years. If the crowd is better this year, he said, then there would be less reason to make the change.

“Historically there have been great crowds on Thanksgiving morning,” Fell said. “We wanted to see if we could get a better crowd. I was a little disappointed that there were people who were unwilling to try something new to see if it worked better. There were enough people who were opposed to it to where we felt we needed more time to look at the issue and find more ways to get more people at the games.”