There will be — because of an apparent lack of numbers and the unwelcome prospect of moving a tiny squad of 20 back up from Division IV (in which the Bonackers played in 2013) to Division III, the so-called “black and blue” division — no varsity football team at East Hampton High School this fall.
It’s only the fourth time in 90 years of football here, dating to 1923, that East Hampton has not fielded a varsity team. There were no varsity games in the war years of 1942 and ’43, and, because the budget failed to pass, triggering “austerity,” there was no football in 1978.
At a meeting last week with about 40 parents of 8th-through-l2th-grade football players, Joe Vas, East Hampton’s athletic director, said that faced with Section XI’s insistence that East Hampton return to Division III given its increased enrollment figures, he had done everything he could to find a way forward, including a proposed merger with Southampton in the sport, but in the end concluded it would be better to forgo a varsity squad in favor of a junior varsity to be coached by Steve Redlus, who made his debut as Bonac’s head varsity coach this past fall.
Also among Vas’s proposals submitted to Section XI, the governing body for high school sports in Suffolk, was one offering to forgo the playoffs should East Hampton be allowed to remain in Division IV.
The proposed combined Southampton-East Hampton team, which would have played in Division III, fell through, according to one of the meeting’s attendees, Don Reese (head of East Hampton’s youth football and basketball programs), “because Southampton didn’t want to play in Division III and because it didn’t want to give up its identity. . . . There was a report that news of a possible merger resulted in a sudden large turnout there, but I was told by someone who knows that that was false.”
While Vas has said the hiatus is to be just for a year, Reese said he thinks it may last two.
“There’s no guarantee that this year’s juniors — there are nine of them, and only three sophomores — who played varsity football last year are going to want to play with ninth graders on a jayvee, and, looking ahead, you don’t want sophomores going up against the Islips and Kings Parks and Hauppauges. You’ll need a budget for 15 wheelchairs if that happens.”
“I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel,” he said in answer to a question, “until this year’s undefeated East Hampton Middle School champions get into the 11th grade.”
As to how this had come to pass, Reese, who will be recruiting youth players aggressively come late April or early May, ascribed it to “a lack of interest” on the part of those who had been Redlus’s predecessors; a less than gung-ho attitude among the area’s young people, and to “a change in demographics here — I’ve tried to tap into the Latino community, I spoke with about 50 parents at the John Marshall Elementary School last spring — but their children are focused on soccer, which, as you know, has become the major sport here. It’s the same thing in Southampton.”
Asked if all the stories about concussions in football hadn’t also contributed to an increasing wariness among parents, Reese, whose son, Jack, is an incoming freshman who quarterbacked the undefeated middle school football team, said, “We’ve had 750 players go through our youth program in the past five years, and there has been one concussion. They’re really rare. I think they play a small part at the high school level.”
“If the kids who play jayvee this fall stick with it, we may be back in two years. Meanwhile, it’s a shame that this was allowed to happen.”
During a conversation with sportswriters Monday, Vas said that, in the end, he had no choice when it came to the program this year, but that he was hopeful, assuming that this year’s uptick in freshman participation — reportedly 15 of the 24 eighth graders who were on last fall’s middle school championship team intend to play junior varsity football this fall — comes to pass, and given the prospect that East Hampton, whose student enrollment of 626 puts it 16 students above the D-III/D-IV cutoff at present, may be able to return in 2015 to Division IV, which, while it comprises 12 teams now, is to grow to 14 in 2015.
Redlus should have a jayvee squad of 27 in the fall should the nine juniors, three sophomores, and 15 freshmen play. Meanwhile, the eight seniors, who aren’t allowed to play at the jayvee level, are out of luck. Vas said he would try to involve them in the program in various ways that would yield community service credits.
“We will do everything we can to rebuild the program,” East Hampton’s athletic director promised. “As painful as the decision [made following discussions with the school board, the administration, coaches, and parents] was, it was the only one we could make, keeping the future of our program and the safety of our kids in mind.”