Coach’s homecoming allowed Woodland seniors proper ending

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BY KYLE BRENNAN
CITIZEN’S NEWS
BEACON FALLS — It was almost summertime when Nate Bodnar realized that he might end his high school career without playing a football game as an upperclassman.
That was the potential staring at Bodnar and his few other rising senior teammates in early June. With a roster size in the mid-teens and without a coaching staff, they figured a 2019 Class S quarterfinal loss would end up being their last high school football game.
“It was heartbreaking. Especially losing our junior season [to the pandemic], a lot of us were devastated,” Bodnar said. “None of us even thought we would even have a season this year.”
“I honestly didn’t think so,” echoed Ben Brooks, a fellow class of 2022 player.
But then, surprising to even the applicant himself, Joe Lato decided to leave his position as Masuk’s head coach to attempt a resuscitation of his hometown’s football program.
“It was a leap of faith on my part,” Lato admitted.
And it was one that his seniors will not forget.
“For Coach Lato to come save our program, we all have a lot of respect for him,” Bodnar said.
With the hiring of Lato, whose sons, senior Tyler and freshman Brett, attend Woodland, a few more Hawks decided to join the roster.
“The seniors took over from there,” Bodnar said. “Our numbers started going up and we got some kids to join who were on the fence about playing. Our morale increased a ton when he took the job.”
Still, Lato knew he’d have a challenge from his first team meeting.
“I walked in expecting a small group, like a basketball team — and it was,” said Lato, recalling 23 players in person and two on a Zoom screen.
Woodland eventually battled to a 5-4 record entering Thanksgiving eve against Seymour. The Hawks were within one possession in the fourth quarter of each game they lost this season.
“We’re not just playing football; we’re trying to save a program,” Lato said. “All year long, we’ve talked about it being about more than football. Win or lose, it’s about playing with passion and inspiring others to buy in. Every game, they spill their tanks.”
Lato hands special credit to the team’s seniors — Bodnar, Brooks, Jay D’Angelo, Josh Gibson, Josh Morales, Matt Dutkanicz, and his oldest son, Tyler — for being the real group that saved the Hawks’ football program.
“They stayed and fought for Woodland,” Lato said. “My message for them throughout the year has been that this might be the most important team to ever play at Woodland, just because we’ve been saying, ‘We’re going to keep it Woodland. We’re not going to co-op; we’re going to fight to rebuild this thing.’ I know they won some state championships here, but if these kids didn’t step up, who knows what would have happened to Woodland football?”
Holiday blues: For Brooks, the worst thing about having the 2020 season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic was missing the annual rivalry matchup with Seymour on the night before Thanksgiving.
“We lost a lot of things, and Thanksgiving football was one of the biggest ones,” Brooks said. “Not everyone gets to play Thanksgiving football against their rivals, so a lot of us are excited [for this year] because a lot of the guys have never played on Thanksgiving before.”
Woodland beat Seymour, 16-0, in 2019 to tie the all-time series between the teams at 9-9. The Hawks held a 9-8 edge in holiday matchups. A win in this year’s game would likely cost the Wildcats a chance at a Class S playoff berth.
Giving his all: Bodnar emerged early this season as the Hawks’ go-to playmaker, a role he didn’t have as a sophomore on the 2019 team that finished 9-2. Junior quarterback Darren Gasparri got the ball into Bodnar’s hands any way he could, whether by handing it off or tossing it to the senior.
But Bodnar missed the second half of Woodland’s game at Naugatuck and the Thanksgiving eve game against Seymour due to fractured left fibula and ligament damage. He said he thinks the initial injury happened Oct. 9 at Holy Cross, but he finished that game and three others before the leg finally gave out against the Greyhounds.
“I love the sport,” Bodnar said. “It was devastating to lose my junior year, and I regret not playing my freshman year, so I only had one good year of football. I wasn’t going to lose my senior year of football. I wanted to bring our program back to where it was. Someone needed to step up, so I couldn’t let my team down by not playing.”
As for regrets, there are none to be found with Bodnar.
“Nope, none,” he said.
Unsung heroes: With Bodnar’s share of touches diminished due to his injury, he was impressed with the way Morales stepped up despite no varsity experience entering this season.
“He was kind of overlooked in the past,” Bodnar said. “During the pandemic and over the summer, he didn’t stop working out — he was running three miles a day. He was dedicated to proving everyone wrong his senior year, and he’s been scoring touchdowns and making plays. I look up to him for it.”
Morales wasn’t the only player who had no experience. Tyler Lato decided to play when his dad became the coach, and he’s been a key factor in multiple ways.
“I’m impressed with how much he’s contributed for a kid who never played before,” Joe Lato said. “As a coach it’s impressive, but as a dad, I’m really proud of him.”