By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
BEACON FALLS — Joe Lato figured he’d retire before he ever left the Masuk High football team.
“I thought my last football position was going to be Masuk,” Lato said, “but life is funny.”
Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, Lato is the new football coach at Woodland. He accepted the job earlier this month after Chris Moffo resigned from the post he’d held since 2016.
The Connecticut high school football community raised its collective eyebrow on Twitter after the news broke — for good reason, too. Lato is leaving a traditional Class L postseason contender for a small-town school that may be headed for some rebuilding.
Lato was surprised at the whirlwind of events, too.
“In about three weeks, it turned pretty quick,” said Lato, who has lived in Beacon Falls since 2001. “I was very happy and excited at Masuk — I’m going to continue to teach there. When the (Woodland) job opened up, a couple of people brought it to my attention.”
He dismissed the possibility at first. After all, he’s had a successful run at Masuk since 2014 with a 42-23 record and two Class L playoff appearances, and he thinks the Panthers will be pretty good this year, too.
But when Joe Lato the football coach listened to Joe Lato the dad, things changed.
“I got to thinking about being with my boys,” said Lato, a father of three whose oldest son, Tyler, is a rising senior and middle child, Brett, is an incoming freshman, “and how much this community means to me. Every time I thought to myself that I wasn’t going to do it, the thought of not being around my boys made me reconsider.”
Finally, Lato had a moment of clarity that convinced him to become the fifth head coach in Woodland history.
“I had a friend ask me, ‘If you’re lucky enough to live until you’re 70, what would be your biggest regret?’” Lato said. “This would have been my biggest regret if I didn’t take this job.”
Lato brings extensive football experience to the position. He was an all-state linebacker and running back at Newtown High from 1990-92, when the Nighthawks won two state titles. He later played at Nichols College, and he began his coaching career as an assistant with Newtown under his old coach, Bob Zito.
When fellow Newtown assistant John Murphy jumped to rival Masuk in 2000, he brought Lato with him. After reaching three state championship games as an assistant coach at Masuk, Lato earned his first head coaching job at Weston. The Trojans went from an 0-10 team during his first year in 2006 to a Class M semifinalist in 2012.
After going 35-49 during eight seasons at Weston, he returned to Masuk. He led the Panthers to Class L playoff appearances in 2016 and 2017, including a loss to Daniel Hand in the 2017 state final.
Lato’s first task is reorganizing the Hawks after the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are 35 players, including incoming freshmen, in the program. He said the football tradition that exists at Woodland, which has qualified for the state playoffs eight times in its 18-year varsity history, provides a great head start.
“There is a strong tradition at Woodland — what Chris Anderson developed and the other coaches continued is still strong,” Lato said. “At Masuk, we worked out at 7 a.m. At Woodland, they’ve always worked out at 6 a.m. The kids are there every day and ready to roll. I’m not teaching that; that’s in the Woodland DNA.”
Lato also has the advantage of knowing most of his Hawks through his sons over the years.
“I coached a lot of the kids in T-ball, travel basketball or something else,” Lato said. “That’s another element of this I truly love, reconnecting with these kids. They’ve had no problem raiding my refrigerator over the years with Tyler and Brett, so I know a lot of them.”
The new coach also plans on cultivating more relationships with the community. He said he wants to be heavily involved with the Woodland Junior Hawks youth football program, including coaching a team this fall.
That, he hopes, will start the process of rebuilding the roster with the depth that the championship-caliber Hawks used to enjoy and get all of Region 16 behind the team.
“It’s about unifying every element of the program to make it the most meaningful experience for everyone involved — players, families, alumni, everyone,” Lato said. “I can’t guarantee wins and championships, but I can guarantee that I will give every ounce of myself to make this the best experience for everyone involved.”