BEACON FALLS — The Woodland football program is about to begin life AD—After DeBiase.
Jack DeBiase, the record-setting all-purpose player for the Hawks is gone, giving way to an experienced group of players who narrowly missed out on the Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division championship last season.
For everything DeBiase did for the Hawks—passing, running, pitching, handing, holding, defending, tackling, and intercepting—it will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace him. But finding a new DeBiase isn’t on the mind of fourth-year head coach Tim Shea.
“It’s a team effort,” Shea said of how Woodland will adjust to not having one player capable of doing everything. “There’s 11 on the field at the same time, and there’s 40 strong we’ve got. Even when Jack was here, it was still about the team. Football, especially, you need everybody to be on the same page. Jack’s tough to replace. We’re not asking anybody to replace him, but we need everyone to step up their game this year.”
The closest player to DeBiase’s replacement is Matt Zaccagnini, a running back and linebacker who earned All-Copper honors last season. Zaccagnini will take over the role as feature back and will anchor the Hawks’ defense.
“The loss of Jack was big, but we’re here to prove that we’re our own team this year,” Zaccagnini said. “I’ve got my returning starting line, so that helps. We’re putting in the work and hopefully that gets us there.”
That offensive line, which returns Tom Gendreau, Vigan Mulahu, Dave Alves, Ryan Wilkinson, Eric Collodel, and Jeremy Clark, should be one of the team’s strengths. The trenches on the other side of the ball should be solid, too, with most of the front seven—including all of the linebackers—coming back.
“They are our most experienced players,” Shea said of the offensive and defensive fronts. “Their curve in practice has been very tight. We expect them to be on point and make adjustments and handle whatever we throw at them. We tell them that the offensive line isn’t allowed to have an off day. Hopefully they’ll lead by example.”
Gendreau, a captain along with Zaccagnini and All-NVL linebacker Zach Plourde, is confident in the line’s ability.
“Last year we weren’t really experienced up front, but everybody’s coming back so we should be all right,”
There are gaps in the secondary and at the other skill positions, and the only proven yard-gaining commodity on offense is Zaccagnini. But Shea said other players will be in the mix.
“Offensively, coach [Tim] Phipps has come up with a good scheme we all believe in,” Shea said. “Matt’s our go-to guy but other guys will touch the ball. Last week in our scrimmage, four or five guys had catches. As we go through the season, the offense will develop and more people will get involved.”
The offense will likely evolve as sophomore quarterback Tanner Kingsley does. The final in the locally famous family line will be the team’s first sophomore starting quarterback in nearly a decade.
“He’s a sophomore, so I think it would be unfair to put the farm on him,” Shea said. “I’m glad he’s got an experienced line in front of him. He’ll be given some time to grow. We’re not going to ask him to win games. We’re going to ask him to manage the offense and be smart with the ball.”
The Hawks will be a mix of the veteran and the inexperienced, but the Copper Division is as open a race as the league has seen since breaking into divisions for the 2007 season. Torrington, Holy Cross, Naugatuck, Sacred Heart, and Woodland all have legitimate chances to claim the division crown.
Woodland opens the season with three-straight home games. First on the slate is Sacred Heart Thursday at 6 p.m. The Hawks then host a pair of Friday night games against Ansonia and Jonathan Law before hitting the road for the first time in October.