Dominant defense leads Hawks over Wildcats

Woodland’s Nick Rousseau (26) looks for room to run as Seymour’s Marvin Matovu (10) closes in during the annual Thanksgiving eve game Nov. 27 at Seymour High School. -STEVEN VALENTI/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

SEYMOUR — The Woodland-Seymour football rivalry is nearly two decades old, but there had never been a defensive performance like the one the Hawks turned in this Thanksgiving eve.

Woodland forced six turnovers and pitched the first shutout in series history as they beat the Wildcats, 16-0, before about 1,200 fans at DeBarber Field.

“Woodland hasn’t done that in a while,” junior safety Joe DeDomenico said, not realizing the Hawks had never accomplished that feat. “For us to come out and do that, it means a lot. We’ve been working hard, so I think we earned this one.”

The victory also sent Woodland (9-1) to the Class S playoffs for the second straight season. The Hawks are set to face No. 5-seeded Sheehan in Wallingford on Tuesday night. Seymour (6-4) missed a playoff spot thanks in part to the loss.

Woodland also took a 9-8 lead in the holiday series and tied up the all-time series between the schools at 9-all.

The Hawks forced four first-quarter turnovers — all fumbles — and capitalized by turning two of them into touchdowns. Tyler Bulinski’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Nate Bodnar made it 6-0 with 9:27 left in the first, and five minutes later, Jason Palmieri’s 6-yard run upped the edge to 13-0.

“Those turnovers helped us tremendously,” senior lineman Alek Tolboe said. “They really changed the mood of the game.”

Seymour drove into the red zone four times throughout the game, but a pair of fumbles and a pair of turnovers on downs helped the Hawks avert each threat.

“We bent but didn’t break,” Woodland coach Chris Moffo said. “The kids did a great job. I’m very proud of these guys. It’s about time we were able to do that this year. We’ve been playing defense all year and we finally were able to execute.”

It was Woodland’s second shutout of the season (42-0 vs. Sacred Heart-Kaynor Tech on Oct. 25), but the Hawks felt like they should have had more.

“I thought all season we could have had a lot zero games that ended up with eight points,” said Tolboe, referring to three such victories within the first five weeks. “We were frustrated by that. We started to play with a chip on our shoulder. I’m so proud of our defense, our offense, everything we were able to do.”

DeDomenico, who has turned into one of the league’s best defensive backs, credits Woodland’s strong defense to its practice habits.

“We just practice hard,” DeDomenico said. “We don’t just go through the motions at practice — we really give it our all. We have a great coaching staff that really leads us through that, and we know our assignments on every down.”

The success of this fall, which ended with the program’s eighth postseason berth in 18 varsity seasons, has come on the backs on a strong but small senior class and a playmaking group of underclassmen.

“Young guys made plays, and they’ve been doing that all year,” Tolboe said. “We’ve had some slip-ups, but tonight we didn’t have any of those. Guys stepped up, and that’s really motivating as a team. We went into the year down a lot of guys. We knew our senior class would be strong, but we needed to rely on guys like Jason, Bodnar, guys like those stepped up for us and made plays when it mattered.”

Moffo admitted he wasn’t sure if this season would turn out like it has.

“If you asked me at the beginning of the season that we’d be 9-1 right now, I’d say absolutely not,” Moffo said. “We lost some key guys from last year. We knew that with the skill we had coming back, if we got an offensive line to jell, we could do some work. We’ve done that.”

DeDomenico was a little more confident.

“We didn’t have any doubts. We knew we would be here,” DeDomenico said. “We put in a lot of hours, so I think as a team we knew we would end up here.”

If Woodland upsets Sheehan, which went 7-3 in a strong Southern Connecticut Conference schedule, the Hawks will advance to the Class S semifinals Dec. 8 against either No. 1 Ansonia or No. 8 Plainfield. The state finals are set for Dec. 14.