WILSON – The challenges of coaching football in a small town are magnified on the practice field.
Lacking the numbers to fill out a full 11-on-11 drill in recent seasons, Wilson Lakemen coach Bill Atlas did some creative math, putting bulky lineman in the backfield and scrawny skill players on the line, rearranging the furniture anyway he could to try to form a makeshift scout team.
On occasion, defensive coordinator Al Scarpine would stand in at free safety. “And he’s got a bum knee,” Atlas said, “so we’re not getting a very good look there, either.”
Now, for the first time since Atlas took over the program in 2006, Wilson High School has 30 players on its varsity squad. The big boys run nine-on-seven drills at one end zone, while the swift ones play seven-on-seven across the field.
And when it’s time to face an opponent, Wilson won’t have to play more than a handful of players on both sides of the ball.
“This is new territory for me,” Atlas said at the tail end of training camp.
But to make the numbers work, the Lakemen had to throw their junior varsity program off the boat.
With 15 seniors graduating from last year’s team and a shortage of players in the rising sophomore class, Atlas and Assistant Coach Brian Baker anticipated that they would have another thin varsity squad in 2013 – and even fewer players on the junior varsity.
Baker, a teacher at Wilson Middle School, recognized there were as many as two dozen interested seventh- and eighth-graders, however, and suggested replacing the JV team with a modified squad. That would allow the Lakemen to pull all of the sophomores up to varsity.
“At first, I said let’s try to get eight more kids,” Athletic Director Jeff Roth said. “But they sold me on this. More kids were going to be able to participate. The coaches came up with a nice proposal for the board. They made me look smart.”
Wilson suspended its JV program for a brief period in the 1990s and cut all modified sports from the budget in 2009. Replacing JV teams with expanded modified programs is a popular discussion topic among athletic administrators, Roth said, but few Western New York football programs have implemented the idea thus far.
That left a scheduling challenge for Wilson. One of Roth’s first calls was to Ken Stoldt, the Section VI football chairman now charged with finding replacements for the JV games Wilson would forfeit.
“Kenny’s response was awesome,” Roth said. “It was going to be a lot of extra work for him, but the first thing he said was, ‘let me know what is going to be best for your kids.’ ”
From there, Roth worked with assistant chairman Chuck Amo to find modified opponents within reasonable travel distance. Wilson will play Tonawanda, Albion, Williamsville North, Starpoint, Lewiston-Porter and Alden this season. Those schools do not include freshmen on their modified teams, but have been made aware that the Lakemen will have four older players this season.
“Without Chuck Amo and Kenny Stoldt really working behind the scene, this wouldn’t have worked,” Roth said.
Many of the modified players also will play junior football games on Saturdays, following the modified team’s Thursday games. Atlas has worked with the Wilson Youth Football program to synchronize schemes and playbooks and come up with a practice schedule that doesn’t overburden the middle school students playing for both teams.
“We wanted to prevent having a kid practicing modified from 4 to 6 and then having youth practice from 6 to 8,” Atlas said. “That’s too much football. Where’s the time for nutrition, for homework?”
Wilson has no plans to replace its JV team in any other sport, Roth said, because participation is strong and the Lakemen are counted on to play their Niagara-Orleans League opponents in JV games.
The football split will be evaluated on a year-to-year basis, Roth said. As the modified players age, it might be necessary to bring back the JV program. If overall numbers continue to dwindle, Wilson could combine with another small school in the area to field a larger team, a growing trend in the C and D enrollment classes.
As it stands, Atlas is happy to have a bigger team and more sophomores gaining varsity experience.
“I’m hoping that when they are seniors, they will look back at having two years in the system practicing at varsity speed and thinking this was a positive experience for them,” Atlas said.