By KYLE BRENNAN
FARMINGTON — Five months ago, there wasn’t going to be a tackle football team in the Woodland Junior Hawks youth football program.
Now, the seventh- and eighth-grade team is an undefeated league champion.
The Junior Hawks won the Nutmeg Youth Football League title on Nov. 21 with a 29-12 victory over Wethersfield at Farmington High, capping a perfect 9-0 season.
Ian Pringle scored two first-half touchdowns on long runs to help Woodland to a 13-6 halftime lead. He added a third touchdown on a 20-yard run following a Wethersfield fumble in the third quarter, and the Junior Hawks pulled away in the fourth quarter.
“Our kids did a really good job,” said Joe Lato, the Woodland High football coach, who also took the reins of the seventh- and eighth-grade team over the summer. “[Wethersfield] had a really explosive offense and we did a good job of containing their skill kids. We bent, but didn’t break.”
Twenty-one of the 25 players on the roster are from Region 16. Many of them played tackle football for the first time this fall after previously playing flag football. This squad came together quickly after Lato became the high school coach.
“When I got the job at Woodland in June, there wasn’t going to be a [Junior Hawks tackle football] team,” Lato said. “Nobody was signing up. Once I committed to coaching the youth team, a couple of key parents I’m friends with had a bunch of kids in flag football, and a lot of them decided to either come back from flag or come back from [playing tackle football in] other towns. It wasn’t like there was a roster of kids waiting; it all came together in July.”
Lato said the keys to the seventh- and eighth-graders’ success were their team-first attitude, strong relationships with each other and willingness to improve. He noted that the Junior Hawks played much better in the championship against Wethersfield than they had during an earlier regular-season matchup, which Lato attributed to their strong work ethic and attentiveness during a film session at Beacon Hose Co. No. 1 the night before the game.
“That was a difference-maker,” Lato said of the film study. “I didn’t have a space to do it [otherwise], so the fact that we had a team dinner at the firehouse gave me a chance to show them film from the last time we’d played [Wethersfield] and their previous playoff game.”
Lato said reestablishing and expanding the tackle football team with the Junior Hawks is a major step in strengthening the high school program.
“You can’t have a successful high school program without a successful youth program,” Lato said. “This was the only tackle program with the Junior Hawks, so we’ll see what happens. There’s still tons of work to do, but I’m pleased with how everything went. We moved the needle forward.”
By KYLE BRENNAN