‘The epitome of Woodland girls soccer’

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Woodland’s Jess Rodriguez (23) hoists the NVL championship trophy into the air as the team celebrates following the Hawks’ 2-1 overtime win over Watertown in the NVL girls soccer tournament final in 2015 at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

This is the third story of a series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in local sports history. Our third story looks at the five-year anniversary of the Woodland girls soccer teams’ NVL championship in 2015 and run to the state semifinals.

If you’ve made the mistake of not appreciating what you’ve had until it was gone, you’re not alone. Woodland girls soccer coach Cait Witham feels your regret about her 2015 Hawks five years after they put together the best season in school history.

“I never appreciated the depth of talent I had until I look back on it,” Witham said of the squad that went unbeaten to win the Naugatuck Valley League title and then made the program’s first appearance in a state semifinal. “The senior class was fantastic, extremely driven and extremely talented. The underclassmen were equally talented and did what they were called upon to do. I don’t think I appreciated what I had when I had it.”

The senior class of Alexa Casimiro, Shae Geary, Jess Rodrigues, Sonia Sousa and Val Vinca was particularly tight-knit, but the entire team had chemistry through club soccer and friendships.

“We really just knew how to play together,” Rodrigues said. “The majority of us grew up playing on the same team through high school. Today we’re all still very close and hang out all the time. We’ve just always been really good friends and I think having that connection with each other built our team emotionally and made us really compatible.”

The Hawks established themselves as the league favorite within the first week of the season by beating Naugatuck, Holy Cross and Watertown in their opening three matches. They cruised through the regular season with their only blemish being a scoreless tie against Wolcott. In posting a 15-0-1 record, Woodland allowed only eight goals, including a stretch of six straight shutouts by goalie Jenna Pannone in October.

“Shae, Alexa, Jess and Sonia individually were all great players, but then you put them with players like Sam Plasky, Haley Andrews, Gillian Hotchkiss, Jenna Pannone, Julia Casimiro, Hailey Boris,” Witham said. “They wanted it more than any other team I’ve ever coached. That team was like, ‘We want to be the best team you’ve ever coached.’”

Woodland’s Jenna Pannone, right, slides to stop a shot by Watertown’s Ashely Gugliotti during the NVL girls soccer championship game in 2015 at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

Woodland reached the NVL tournament final after shutting out Seymour and St. Paul in the first two rounds. Watertown, the five-time defending league champion which the Hawks had shut out twice during the regular season, provided Woodland’s toughest challenge to that point.

After 71 scoreless minutes, the Indians claimed a 1-0 lead when a ball trickled into the net following a collision between Pannone and Watertown’s Fitore Kllobocishta. Three minutes later, freshman Julia Casimiro dribbled into the right side of the box and fired a shot, which deflected to Plasky on the far post. She chipped it in for the equalizer to force overtime.

“Sam Plasky’s goal gave us life,” Witham said. “It made us realize that we were still in it. I’ve never been prouder of a team. To win all season long and then be up against it, it’s hard mentally. But they didn’t give up. They trusted each other and really pushed. That’s a rare thing to find a team that can come together and find a result. Those kids always wanted to prove that they were a really good team.”

With about a minute left in the first overtime period, Andrews threaded a pass ahead to the streaking Rodrigues, whose shot deflected off the goalie and into the net for the game-winner in a 2-1 thriller.

“It was such a rush — high adrenaline,” Rodrigues said. “I immediately celebrated by jumping into Alexa Casimiro’s arms. Then and there we knew it was finally ours.”

Woodland blanked Watertown in the second overtime period to clinch the title, the Hawks’ first since 2004.

Woodland’s Sonia Sousa, left, looks to secure the ball against Stonington’s Reilly Walker during the Class M quarterfinal in Beacon Falls in 2015. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

“When Jess scored, we were all in disbelief because it had been a long time since Woodland won an NVL title,” Witham said. “We pushed everyone back to play defense and hold our lead. When we were up against it, Jess came through. She had a knack for finding the back of the net.”

The Hawks secured the top seed in the Class M state tournament and earned a first-round bye. They outlasted No. 16 Rocky Hill in an 8-7 shootout to earn a 2-1 victory. Boris netted the clincher in the last round of penalty kicks.

“They always believed in the system and each other,” Witham said. “It goes to a second round of PKs and it’s like, we’ve gotta come up with more (players to shoot)? Hailey Boris, Erin Machado — kids who didn’t maybe contribute as many goals during the season volunteered to step up to take PKs. It’s such a crap shoot, so for us to make it out of that game was a big confidence builder.”

In the quarterfinals against No. 9 Stonington, Boris and Megen Sirowich each scored once and Andrews fired in two goals in a 4-1 rout to send the Hawks to their first semifinal appearance in program history.

No. 12-seeded Enfield jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half, forcing Woodland to make one of its only tactical adjustments of the season, switching to a 3-4-3 formation. The added offensive pressure worked, as Alexa Casimiro and Rodrigues each scored to send the match to overtime and eventually to penalty kicks.

“For a team to come back 2-0 in the state semis and still have the gall to believe in the system and try as hard as they could, that’s the hardest working team I’ve had in a long time,” Witham said. “Whatever formation (assistant coach) Jess (Moffo) and I decided to go in, the kids believed in that. It spoke to their talent to be able to adjust and be successful.”

Woodland’s Julia Casimiro, left, and Stonington’s Jessica Connor go in for the ball during the Class M quarterfinal in Beacon Falls in 2015. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

Although Pannone stopped two PKs, Geary was the only Woodland player to convert as Enfield won the shootout, 3-1. Still, the Hawks were able to appreciate what they had accomplished.

“We knew we had the talent and we worked hard to get as far as we did,” Rodrigues said. “It was really upsetting for all of us when we lost in the semis, but we held our heads high and appreciated how far we came and how well we worked together.”

Seven players on that squad went on to play in college: Alexa Casimiro (UConn), Geary (Virginia Wesleyan), Andrews (Albertus Magnus), Hotchkiss (Southern Connecticut), Pannone (University of New England), Boris (Elmira) and Julia Casimiro (Southern Connecticut).

“Those seniors were the foundation and the epitome of Woodland girls soccer,” Witham said. “Every year they asked more of themselves. I really wanted the underclassmen to understand the amount of commitment and grit you need to have to win an NVL title and do well in states. I think a lot of kids don’t realize how much effort it takes during the offseason or even during the season. When we had down games with that group, we would challenge kids and they would respond. Sometimes when you challenge kids these days, they aren’t able to match that level. Those seniors always wanted to give more.”