By Gavin Menu
For the first time in nearly 40 years, the East Hampton High School football program will not field a varsity team. East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo this week confirmed that the program, with just 20 players from grades 9-11 committed for next season, will compete only at the middle school and junior varsity levels in 2014.
Seven current juniors who would have played football next year will not play their senior seasons at East Hampton because of a rule that bars seniors from competing at the junior varsity level. There are 15 players coming up from the eighth grade, so the school should field a competitive junior varsity squad and could return to varsity as early as 2015.
During a meeting in his office on Monday, Vasille-Cozzo said he and head coach Steven Redlus, along with school administrators and members of the East Hampton School Board, explored a number of options before deciding to eliminate the varsity team. The decision was also made with consideration to the school’s enrollment figures, which warrant a move from Division IV to the much more competitive ranks of Division III.
The Bonackers finished their Division IV season last year with a 3-6 record and a loss to Babylon in the first round of the postseason.
“We asked Section XI if we could stay in Conference IV,” Vasille-Cozzo, speaking about Suffolk County’s governing body of high school athletics. “Conference III is a completely different animal. We’d be the smallest school in Conference III. We did that two years ago and we almost didn’t make it through the season. But Section XI denied us.”
In addition to seeking the special placement, Vasille-Cozzo and Redlus held discussions with Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips and that school’s administration about combining programs at the varsity level, a notion that sent shock waves through alumni communities that have followed one of Long Island’s oldest rivalry over the last century. Ultimately the merger plan was scrapped because Southampton announced it would field both JV and varsity teams next season.
“The small schools struggle with numbers with having the JV and varsity programs,” Phillips said on Tuesday. “We’re probably looking at 45-50 kids, though, so we should be okay.”
Southampton is rebuilding its program and will have a new head coach in Bruce Muro, a former head coach at Copiague High School. Phillips said there are creative ways to construct the JV schedule, as well, so that some sophomores can at least suit up with the varsity for Friday or Saturday games.
Phillips said the decision not to join with East Hampton had more to do with logistics, transportation, coaching and scheduling than it did with disrupting what was once an annual battle for the Hamptons Cup, which currently resides in an East Hampton trophy case.
“A lot of our kids, unless their parents grew up here, are not familiar with that,” Phillips said about the rivalry. “You have to explain the history to them.”
“For us, the reality was if we don’t have football programs, it was silly not trying to create a football program together,” Vasille-Cozzo said. “It was about saving football on the East End. We both talked about collapsing our programs, and when you’re faced with that, you do things that are not traditional.”
East Hampton will once again share its football program with Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton, after deciding two years ago to cut Sag Harbor since the shared numbers would have put the program into Division III. Now, the East Hampton numbers alone put the program into the higher division, so it makes sense to once again share with Sag Harbor.
“The larger school is the host school,” Vasille-Cozzo explained. “So you take that enrollment, plus 30 percent of Sag Harbor and 30 percent of Bridgehampton.”
East Hampton alone has 626 students in grades 9-11, which is 15 more than Mt. Sinai, which will remain as the largest school in Division IV. Southampton combines with the Ross School and has 501 students, keeping it firmly in Division IV.
Pierson had traditionally sent a small number of players to East Hampton each year, but many of them have played key rolls and become great players.
“We have a few students that plan to participate in the football program in East Hampton,” Sag Harbor Athletic Director Todd Gulluscio said in an email on Tuesday. “However, the students that have shown interest are underclassmen and middle school students. It would be highly unlikely that the varsity level would have been an appropriate placement for them.”
Other factors have also played a roll in the decline of football interest, including a larger conversation about the dangers of football, specifically relating to head and neck injuries and concussions. Vasille-Cozzo said numbers are down across Long Island, adding that a few years ago there were two separate teams between the fifth and sixth grades in East Hampton, until last year when there were just 15 kids combined.
“Football is a collision sport, so you’re going to get hit, but it’s not number one in concussions,” Vasille-Cozzo said. “Sports like girls soccer are number one. There are other injuries that come with the game, but it’s the same with other sports.”
Changing demographics in the Town of East Hampton has also played a roll, with a growing Latino population—the student population at East Hampton High School is roughly 40 percent Latino, Vasille-Cozzo said—adding to the overall growth in enrollment numbers. Participation in football has not increased at a similar pace.
“Things have changed, but that’s not a negative,” Vasille-Cozzo said, pointing to other programs like boys soccer, volleyball and swimming, all of which have seen growth in numbers. “One thing I look at is my overall participation, and 70 percent of the kids in school play sports. That hasn’t really changed over the years.”
Traditionally, East Hampton has boasted good numbers at the middle school level, but the participation in recent years has dwindled as the classes move through the high school. The current class of sophomores, which has just three players committed to play football next season, featured 26 football players in eighth grade.
Redlus and Vasille-Cozzo expressed hope this week that the trend of diminishing interest would soon be reversed.
“I saw this coming a year-and-a-half ago, with the low numbers,” Redlus said. “It’s not an easy sport to play by any means. The amount of time it takes during the offseason, you have to love this sport down to your core. It has to be in your blood.”