There will be no varsity football at East Hampton High School in 2014.
The school decided to fold its program, at least for one season, due to low participation. The decision was a tough one, but the right one to make, according to East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo, who said on Monday that only 20 kids had committed to playing either varsity or junior varsity in the fall. The program will still field junior varsity and middle school squads next year, although for seven rising seniors, their football careers will come to a premature end, as seniors are not allowed to play junior varsity sports according to Section XI rules.
Last year, the Bonackers finished with a 3-5 record in Division IV, good enough for eighth place, which gave them the final playoff spot in the Division IV county playoffs. East Hampton lost, 53-8, in the opening round to eventual Suffolk County and Long Island champion Babylon, which capped off its second straight undefeated season.
Having enough depth to field a team has been an issue for the program in recent years, and the loss of 12 seniors from last year’s team compounded the problem. Four of those seniors were three-year starters who earned All-County and All-Division honors and were the glue of the team.
Vasile-Cozzo said that 20 students were simply not enough for both a varsity and JV team, and he said that the fact that East Hampton was slated to move up into the more competitive Division III next year was a factor as well. The Bonackers were one of 14 teams in Division IV last year, but because there are 54 teams playing football in Suffolk County, the number of teams in each of the four divisions rotates each year, with one division having 12 teams and the rest having 14. Division IV had 14 teams last year, which allowed East Hampton to play in that division. But because it is only slated to have 12 next year, the two teams with the largest student body enrollment were picked to move into Division III, and East Hampton was one of those schools.
“Based on the number of kids, and being faced with having no JV, we didn’t want to go up to Division III and put the kids in danger,” Vasile-Cozzo said.
Because football is a high-contact sport, injuries are routine, especially for small squads where athletes are forced to play on both sides of the ball. That was another factor in the decision, Vasile-Cozzo said.
“I think the kids are well-protected with the equipment they have, but yes, it is a collision sport and there are injuries,” he said. “Teams like Rocky Point and Hauppauge will show up with 60 kids and when we only have 20, we’re at a severe disadvantage. Knowing all the facts we knew, we felt this was the right decision to make.”
It’s not a decision that snuck up on Vasile-Cozzo and the rest of the East Hampton community. Numbers have been declining in the football program for the past decade or more.
“If you look at the [town’s] youth program, enrollment is down 35 percent,” he said. “So we saw it coming, but we were just hoping to make it through.”
In a last-ditch effort to preserve a varsity presence, particularly for the seniors who won’t be able to play next year, Vasile-Cozzo had been in talks with Southampton High School Athletic Director Darren Phillips, who has experienced a similar decline in numbers in the Mariner football program in recent years. The athletic directors discussed the possibility of creating a combined East Hampton/Southampton varsity football team, but ultimately, according to Vasile-Cozzo, Phillips felt he had enough commitments from players to field a varsity team.
Vasile-Cozzo said he hopes the varsity will only take a one-year hiatus, but he said he is still unsure whether it will be necessary to stick with only a JV for more than one season. He said that while participation levels from eighth-graders have been promising, only three sophomores have indicated an interest in playing.
When asked what he believes has contributed to the apparent waning popularity of football on the East End, and in East Hampton in particular, over the past few years, Vasile-Cozzo said it likely comes from a variety of factors—changing demographics within the student body population; an increase in the popularity of other sports, such as swimming; an increase in the number of sports offered to a shrinking student population; nationwide concerns about head injuries in football; the increased trend toward student-athletes focusing on one sport rather than playing multiple sports. Vasile-Cozzo said all those situations likely have come into play.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” he said. “Soccer has grown but we also added varsity boys volleyball right before I came here, so that takes kids away [from football] too. Cross country is strong, and we have 38 swimmers in our swim program.
“I also think times have changed,” he continued. “You used to see more kids playing three sports, but now kids like to specialize in one sport. You might have a lacrosse player who is a great athlete but now he’s just playing lacrosse year round for club teams. It takes them away from the other school sports. It’s unfair to say it’s just one thing.”
Despite all those factors, however, Vasile-Cozzo doesn’t believe that football will be gone forever. He was adamant that the move to temporarily eliminate the varsity was just that—temporary—and he is hopeful that the program will be stronger in the long run.
“It’s never easy to remove yourself from the emotion of it,” he said. “But looking from top to bottom, it was the right decision for the program. We’re hoping to be back. Sometimes you have to take a step back and come back stronger.”