When sophomore Shaundell Fishburne ran the opening kickoff back 70 yards, setting up a 4-yard touchdown run by freshman quarterback Nitauke Williams in Southampton on Friday night, it looked as though the Mariners might avoid the tragedy of a winless season by beating Stony Brook, one of the weaker teams in Division IV.
But in what has unfortunately been a theme for the Southampton football team all year long, a moment of elation turned out to be fleeting, giving way to the all-too-familiar feeling of being on the losing side of the scoreboard.
The Mariners were facing a manageable 20-12 deficit at halftime, but after Stony Brook put up 20 points in the third quarter, their fate was all but sealed as they watched the Bears (3-5) and running back Dan Liotine (15 carries, 340 yards, six touchdowns) hand them their eighth loss of the year, a 40-12 defeat.
A perfect storm of bad circumstances seemed to create what was one of the worst seasons in program history for Southampton. A lack of numbers and a seemingly inexplicable drop in participation left Southampton with barely enough players to field a varsity team, and eliminated the junior varsity altogether. Injuries early on to key players, including quarterback Teague Florio and receiver John Donovan, made matters worse.
Few numbers and injuries necessitated putting inexperienced freshmen and sophomores on the field each week—their lack of size and experience in a physical and nuanced game like football made it difficult for the Mariners to compete on a weekly basis, particularly against powerhouse programs such as Babylon and Shoreham/Wading River.
Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips—who announced at the beginning of this season that it would be his last as head coach of the football team—said he and the rest of the coaching staff will have some tough decisions to make during the offseason regarding the future of the program. Assistant coach Hike Franklin is expected to take over head coaching duties next season, but there is a possibility that the program might only field a junior varsity squad. Phillips said that decision won’t need to be made until March.
In the meantime, he hopes that the coaching staff can drum up enough participation and enthusiasm for next season to field both a varsity and junior varsity squad. If the school only fields a junior varsity, seniors would not be allowed to play on the team, according to Section XI (Suffolk County’s governing body of high school sports) rules.
Phillips estimated that there were roughly 15 to 20 kids attending the high school whom he would have expected to play this year but who chose not to try out for the team. When asked what he thought were the reasons behind that, Phillips said he wasn’t sure, but noted that finding enough players to field JV and varsity teams shouldn’t be an issue.
“We’re going to have to go out and get a lot of these kids and find out why they didn’t play,” he said. “Some of them came out late and maybe they figured we weren’t going to have a JV. But I’m just not sure how many kids we have that really love football.”
While Southampton had a historically bad year, it always struggles to have significant numbers on the roster because it is a small school. It is a problem that other schools—such as Mercy, Wyandanch and Stony Brook—tackle on a year-to-year basis, and in a physical sport like football, having depth is crucial to a team’s survival.
Phillips said there has been talk among other coaches and athletic directors of creating a developmental league for teams like Southampton that have struggled to compete in recent years. A developmental league would be open to any teams in Suffolk County, but it would necessitate realignment of all the divisions. The developmental league would appeal to struggling programs because it would give them a chance to be competitive and win rather than suffering lopsided losses to the powerhouses of the division. The drawback, however, is that there would be no postseason and no chance to play for a Long Island title for those squads.
Regardless of how next year plays out for Southampton—whether there is both a JV and varsity team, only a JV or only a varsity, or if a developmental league is created—Phillips said the mentality needs to change.
“We hit bottom, and parents and kids need to understand that they have to be committed,” he said. “The kids have to be in the weight room and go to camp. They can’t just show up in August and expect to be competitive.
“The next coach needs to reach out to the parents and it has to be a total commitment on the part of the coaches, parents and kids,” he continued. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be 50 kids playing football.”