Pat Veltri never dreamed his first season as a high school varsity football coach would be like this.
Josh Moore never thought his final season as a high school football player would go this way.
The high school season is four weeks old and the news has been depressing at Kenmore East. The Bulldogs are officially 0-4 in the standings, although they are 0-3 on the field – more on that in a moment. They have been outscored by 137-12.
“It’s not the way you plan things,” Veltri said. “It’s unexpected, but it is what it is, and we’re trying to make the best of the situation.”
“It weighs on our minds a lot, in the locker room and at home,” Moore said. “As far as what we do on the field, it shows severely in how we practice. We go through the motions instead of having that hunger to win like we should. A lot of these guys are down in the dumps.”
If adversity builds character, then the Bulldogs are ready for citizen-of-the-year honors.
The problems center around roster size, a rare issue for good-sized schools in the suburbs. Kenmore East has been playing short-handed the entire season.
“Coming into camp, we had about 28 kids,” Veltri said. “We knew we’d call up a couple of JV players, so we knew we’d have 30. Then, we had about three or four kids not come out.
“From there, we had two kids declared unable to play because of previous concussions, as the doctors decided not to release them for play. We had a bunch of guys take days off, some for family reasons or other reasons. We lost practice days coming into the first game, and we knew we were short.”
As the opener against Grand Island approached, the coaching staff figured it could muddle through.
“Then we had a couple of guys get hurt,” Veltri said. “We had six more guys go through concussion protocol. Once we got into contact drills, guys started dropping and we knew we were in trouble for the first game.”
State rules require 16 players suit up and Kenmore East had only 12. Calling up several players from the junior varsity was considered a poor option, so the Bulldogs had to use one of the worst words in the football dictionary: forfeit.
“I didn’t expect that many injuries at the start,” said lineman Jacob Elgie. “We have a new coaching staff, and they have a different work ethic. They pushed it hard, and a lot of guys weren’t used to that.”
Enough players returned for Kenmore East to field a team the following week. The Bulldogs lost to North Tonawanda, 48-0, at home on Sept. 12. That was followed by a 42-6 loss to Williamsville East on Sept. 19. Last Saturday, winless Niagara Wheatfield downed the Bulldogs, 47-6.
Kenmore East still has a very small margin for error. It dressed only 17 players in the loss to Niagara Wheatfield.
Some area school districts, particularly in rural areas, have had trouble fielding enough players in recent years. That has led to teams featuring players from as many as three different schools, such as Franklinville/Ellicottville/West Valley. The momentum for such arrangements has been growing.
East Aurora and Holland came together before the 2013 season. The Blue Devils are 3-1 and participation in the program has almost doubled.
But the merging of programs isn’t a cure-all. Eden’s team was the first this season to fall victim to a numbers’ crunch. It had 19 players sign up for football but by the end of August only 10 were available. Transfers and injuries cut into the numbers.
The Raiders already had players from both the Eden and North Collins school districts. Football was canceled for the season, although school officials have said they hope Eden will field a team in 2016.
Kenmore East’s difficulties also appear short term. Enrollment has remained relatively steady. There doesn’t seem to be talk about a merger with Kenmore West – it would be unprecedented to merge two football teams from a major suburb in Section VI. It would also, in the case of the two Kenmore schools, create the largest enrollment pool in Section VI.
Veltri calls the set of circumstances affecting his program “a perfect storm.”
“I had coached our feeder program, the modifieds, for six seasons,” he said. “We had a small group of juniors and seniors to begin with this year. The modified program has had 35 kids, and the JVs have had 35-40. We hit a little bump there. We didn’t have enough kids out, and I don’t know why.
“Kenmore East is not a big school. There are 800 kids in the building, and we’ll never have 55 kids on the varsity roster. If we’re in the 30s to 40, that where we should be based on enrollment, what with other sports going on. It’s just this one group.”
As the season goes on, everyone involved is trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“We’re not easy on our kids. We’re driving them,” Veltri said. “Even though we have low numbers, we’re going to coach the way we coach. We’re trying to build the program up. We’re tough, but I think in the end the kids will say, ‘Yeah, I’d rather do it that way than just go through the motions, not work hard, and have the coaches worry if we’ll show up.’ I give our varsity kids all the credit in the world. They haven’t quit.
“We play ironman football. We have a lot of guys that play both ways. We have a limited amount of guys that can sub in. … They are fighting through it.”
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel to Kenmore East’s woes, it’s that the junior varsity players are getting some good experience practicing with the varsity. That’s helped them be more competitive in their own schedule. The team has gone 2-2.
“I feel like our JV team has a lot of potential,” Elgie said. “They beat our varsity in practice more than half the time. They give us a good run.
“It’s a new program. The juniors and seniors are at the end. … The JV guys will get better, and this is how they’ll start.”