MHS football decision: safety comes first
MONTPELIER — After a discussion in front of the Montpelier School Board on Dec. 5, the Montpelier High School administration decided ,in the interest of player safety, to drop varsity football and play a junior varsity schedule in 2013 and possibly 2014.
There was no formal vote on the decision.
“We decided it was our best avenue to take,” first-year athletic director Matt Link said on Thursday. “With the numbers projected for next year, it was based a lot on numbers. We think right now we’ll have the same number of kids, and for the benefit of all the kids involved ... we didn’t want to put them in a position (of playing) against kids who are more mature physically. We didn’t want to go through the same thing we did this year, forfeiting games.”
Short on enough healthy players at times, Division III Montpelier had to forfeit two games this fall, and went 0-9 overall.
“Performance was definitely not part of it,” Link said. “The physicality was part of it. We’ll have kids coming up who haven’t played, and to throw them out against varsity-level players, we felt that’s not fair to the younger kids.”
John Murphy, named head coach two years ago after nearly a decade of assistant coaching at both Montpelier and at the youth level in Rutland, got the call from Link on Dec. 4.
He does not believe the decision was right for the program.
“No, I do not,” he said. “I strongly stated that at the School Board meeting, where the School Board members sounded supportive of Montpelier and praised the work I’ve been doing. They definitely understand why the administration was doing what they were doing, but taking away a varsity program, and not having a youth program but keeping a middle-level program, doesn’t sustain any growth.”
In fact, it may mark the end.
“They said it’s going to be a one-year stint. With me being involved in football as much as I have, it’s not,” he said. “The kids you are going to lose because you don’t have a varsity program ... I think this is the next step for them to eliminate it. I think it’s the end of the program with what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”
Murphy has agreed to stay on board but hopes for more stability within the athletic department.
“I love Montpelier and the opportunity I’ve been able to have with the school,” he said. “At this point I’m going to stay and do what I need to do to try and rebuild. The fluctuation we’ve had in the athletic department has been tough, with three athletic directors in the last two years, but I’m hoping the two there now (Link and athletic trainer Jen Lahr, who served as co-athletic director in 2011-12) will stay and have some continuity.”
There is no active youth football program in Montpelier. Barre Youth Sports serves the majority of area youth football players, and U-32 also offers a sub-varsity program.
Murphy described several plans to help build not just the Montpelier football program but two other varsity programs — Spaulding and U-32 — which are also currently struggling.
“I was going to go into Main Street Middle School, meet the eighth-grade boys, let them know the things we’re doing in the off-season, let them know about our workouts,” Murphy said. “I wanted to do some clinics with Norwich University players and local alumni, open it up to all of central Vermont and make it a collaborative effort. There’s lots of stuff planned but I didn’t have time to execute any of it.”
“Whatever he needs, we will definitely support him,” Link said.
A Montpelier junior suffered a career-ending injury while playing in a home game in 2011, the first year Montpelier had a full-time athletic trainer on staff. Murphy has been working closely with legislators to pass tougher laws to protect against concussions, particularly in contact sports like football.
Montpelier Principal Adam Bunting denied that a fear of physical contact had an affect on the school’s decision about its football program.
“It’s also about the lack of youth programs,” he said. “Students are exposed to other sports at an earlier age, and football’s a tough sport to pick up your freshman year of high school. Nationally, the contact has affected football. It’s not particular to Montpelier.”
“A sport like football, it’s a contact sport. You have to make sure you put your kids in a safe situation,” said Vermont Interscholastic Football League treasurer, secretary and scheduler Mike O’Day, who is also the athletic director at South Burlington High School. “It’s more under a microscope than, say, cross-country running or track.”
Link also said the athletic department budget at Montpelier High was not a factor in the decision, as a JV schedule will require similar travel and equipment costs.
The Solon program this season included five athletes from Northfield, and while an agreement was in place with Williamstown, no Blue Devil athletes played football forMontpelier in 2012. (Two did during the 2011 season.)
Williamstown Athletic Director Marc Chamberlain said he wants to continue the agreement with Montpelier, despite the Solons’ program moving to JV.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’d love to. If I can get more kids involved, I’m all about it.”
Williamstown has had similar agreements in other sports with Northfield, Montpelier and Chelsea.
Such arrangements made between schools throughout the state must be approved by the Vermont Principals Association.
Northfield Athletic Director TJ Powers would not confirm whether he’ll continue to send athletes to a JV program.
“I would have to see what my options are,” he said on Thursday. “We have a few kids who are older, and I don’t know how the JV level would appeal to their needs. My first guess would be to look at Spaulding as a possibility.”
Seniors are allowed to play JV football, but teams must alert opponents about those upperclassmen, who may be denied participation against the opposition’s younger players.
Which raises the concern that, without that handful of Northfield athletes, would Montpelier be able to field a team even at the JV level?
“We’re going to exhaust all options,” Link said.
Does Link feel he could’ve done more to save this tradition-rich varsity program that owns seven state titles?
“Honestly, I probably could’ve fought a little harder,” he said. “But the one thing we didn’t want was forfeits like this year. It just messes up the scheduling. I know Coach Murphy took (the forfeits) tough. It’s a slippery slope of forfeiting games turning into a bad vibe. That’s the one thing we didn’t want to have.”
The decision to move away from a varsity football schedule marks the fourth Montpelier team to lose varsity status in the last five years. The school eliminated softball in 2009 and has agreements with U-32 (girls) and Northfield (boys) for ice hockey. Link could not confirm whether Montpelier helps fund programs at other schools in which its athletes participate.
Link maintains the athletic program at Montpelier is healthy.
“Boys soccer was 40-45 strong; girls soccer won the state championship,” he said. “There’s more unique sports getting attention — we had 50 kids out for Ultimate Frisbee, which isn’t a VPA-sanctioned sport, but it’s encouraging to see kids participating. We wish we still had boys and girls hockey. It’s discouraging to see these sports go down the tubes, but at the same time, there are healthy sports.”
O’Day acknowledged Vermont high school football as a whole is on the decline.
“Now with declining enrollments ... it’s just a cycle we’re in right now,” he said. “Participation numbers are down, and in smaller schools, a few kids makes a huge difference.”
For scheduling next season’s games, O’Day would need to know soon if the Montpelier decision is overturned. Waiting until after Feb. 1, 2013, would not be an option. But Link was firm in saying that the decision to not play football at the varsity level in Montpelier is final for at at least the 2013 season.
While the football divisional alignments are set for two-year cycles, should Montpelier be able to field a varsity team in 2014, the VIFL would welcome the Solons back, provided the teams that filled their Montpelier dates with other schools could get out of those agreements.
“I wouldn’t say it’s ever set in stone,” O’Day said of the two-year commitment.
While Montpelier won’t have a varsity-level football team next season, the school intends to field a solid JV program, one that the community can be proud of. “With that natural support from parents and other kids, (the players) will look at it as a professionally run program by Coach Murphy,” said Link, the Solons athletic director. “Kids will want to play. It’s not a step backward, it’s more getting ready to make the two steps forward.”
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