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As football turnout declines, high schools explore unusual ways to field teams

The Kenmore East High School football team had to forfeit its first game last season because it couldn’t field enough players.

The rest of the season was a nail biter whether the Bulldogs could muster the necessary 16 players for a game.

“Each subsequent week for seven more weeks, it was hit-or-miss whether or not we were going to play,” said Athletic Director Brett Banker.

Now, Banker has brought forth an unprecedented proposal to allow students from a charter school located in the district to join the team. School Board members have raised concerns about the proposal.

But the fact that it is even being discussed underscores the difficulty of maintaining the football program at Kenmore East, as well several other schools around the region.

Declining enrollments, fear of concussions and growing popularity of other sports are fueling the lower turnout for football programs.

Some schools, especially in rural areas, have had to merge programs. That has led to teams featuring players from as many as three different schools, such as Franklinville/Ellicottville/West Valley.

The Fredonia School Board last month approved a plan to merge its high school football program with the nearby Westfield/Brocton combined outfit.

And East Aurora and Holland came together before the 2013 season.

Sometimes, however, a merger is not enough to keep football going, such as in Eden, which couldn’t field a team last year, even after a merger with North Collins.

The momentum for such arrangements has been growing.

The state has allowed mergers in high school sports for 50 years, Banker said, mainly for emerging sports like girls’ ice hockey and girls’ golf but also in cases of declining enrollments and financial difficulties.

“The popularity of mergers has never been higher,” he said.

In fact, merged athletic teams in Section VI, which governs high school sports in Western New York, have risen from 24 in 2010-11 to 181 this year, including four in Ken-Ton and 18 involving football programs.

“It’s not a unique solution any longer,” Banker said.

A public-charter merger is unheard of in Western New York, but widespread elsewhere in the state, said Section VI football chairman Ken Stoldt.

“It’s rare around here, but that could definitely open the door,” he said.

Kenmore East hit a low point last season when the team lost 15 players during the preseason – several of them due to injuries and concussion protocol, Banker said. The team was forced to forfeit its Week One game against Grand Island, which Banker said was “something we never envisioned happening in the Kenmore school district.”

It wasn’t just a Week One issue, Banker added.

“We crossed our fingers for seven more weeks,” he said.

Low turnout for football is a matter of student safety, he said, because each player is then forced to play on all sides of the ball – offense, defense and special teams.

“Despite the criticism and the negative impact on our sister school Grand Island, we could not place our athletes in that situation,” Banker said.

Supplementing roster

Banker is proposing a merger with the Charter School for Applied Technologies as a way to supplement the Kenmore East roster. The team would be known as the Kenmore East/CSAT Bulldogs and the merger would have to be renewed annually.

Ken-Ton would bill CSAT $100 for each player, up to the first 20 players.

“Right now, we can outfit 20 charter school players with ease,” Banker said.

But School Board members have reservations about forming a partnership with a charter school, which competes for students and funding. Although most CSAT students are from Buffalo, 211 students who live in Ken-Ton – including 37 high schoolers – choose to attend CSAT rather than a district school.

Board President Jill Y. O’Malley questions why Ken-Ton should offer a program to charter school students that they could get by deciding to attend school in Ken-Ton.

“I cannot in good conscience blur that line between public school and charter school,” she said. “I just really can’t.”

CSAT doesn’t offer football but plays other sports in Section VI’s Niagara-Orleans League, which means it abides by all the same transfer and residency rules as Ken-Ton. Joel Reed, the school’s athletic director, was present at last week’s board meeting and explained that CSAT doesn’t recruit players. Its students are admitted based on a strict lottery system.

“You cannot fill directly a position based upon application, and the criteria is just your basic criteria,” Reed said. “It has nothing to do with aptitude, athletic ability.”

Ken East and Ken West merger?

Trustee Bob Dana asked if a merger between Ken East and Ken West had been explored.

Banker said ending the fierce rivalry between those high schools in the district would prompt a backlash from the community.

“I think we would have a storm in here if we tried to do that,” Banker said. “I don’t want to be the person that shuts down the Kenmore East program forever.”

The program was founded in 1959 and included Richard “Sparky” Adams, legendary longtime head coach of the Bulldogs whom the field on Parker Boulevard is named after, and Lou Reuter, who coached junior varsity and varsity football at Kenmore East for 33 years.

Pat Veltri, the current head coach at Kenmore East, said his players told him they would much prefer merging with CSAT than Kenmore West.

“We may have a few that would go over and play at West but I’m telling you right now the majority of them just won’t cross over the tracks,” he said.

Veltri, a health teacher at Franklin Middle School and Kenmore West, said he believes turnout is poor due, in part, to the “stigma” attached to the recently subpar Ken East program, which makes it difficult to recruit athletes to the team.

However, prior to last season’s 0-8 record, Veltri’s first, the Bulldogs went 3-6, 4-5 and 4-5 the previous three seasons, including a big upset win over Kenmore West in 2014 under head coach Matt Chimera. In 2013, the Bulldogs made the program’s first Section VI playoff appearance in over 10 years.

“It’s a pretty big deal for a student-athlete to go out there in front of all his peers and play football, or any other sport for that matter,” Veltri said. “There’s a lot of positive feedback. But if you’re not doing so well, there’s a lot of negative feedback you get from your peers as well.”

Coaches have been trying to recruit Ken East athletes who play other sports and might be good at football, but without much success.

Principal Patrick Heyden told the board the program is also hampered because of the lack of a teacher-coach in the building during the school day, other than assistant coach Keith Brophy.

“The face time every day makes a big difference,” he said. “It has been, I believe, a part of the struggle.”

Dana said the district’s administrators are actively exploring several alternatives to the proposed merger, with most of the focus on bringing an additional coach into the Ken East building.

Football is becoming a year-round commitment, Stoldt said, involving weight room training and offseason leagues.

“I just think the commitment asked of kids is a lot more than it’s been in the past,” he said. “That, along with declining enrollment could play into it.”

Banker said 26 students have signed up to play for Ken East in the fall, but noted that the number that actually make it to opening day is likely to be much lower.

“It’s easy to sign up for football, it’s not so easy to show up on Day One,” he said.

He’s hoping the merger, as well as the district’s plan to build a new stadium at Adams Field this summer, with artificial turf, an eight-lane track, lights and a renovated field house, will entice more students to play.

“We are hopeful that the CSAT players will not replace but rather supplement the Ken East roster, making the program more competitive,” he said. “A more successful program will naturally make it more likely that more Kenmore East students will wish to be associated with football.”

Board tables decision

The School Board has tabled a vote on the proposed agreement until a budget work session scheduled for March 29. The board’s three other members indicated support for the merger, if certain revisions were made to the memorandum of agreement, which was the same one used in the Barker/Royalton-Hartland merger.

“To me, moving in this direction – again, with some details to work out – is a no-brainer, because to me it looks like the other option is to give up on a football program at Kenmore East,” said Vice President Andrew Gianni. “I look at this as something that we need to do moving forward.”

The School Board would have to approve the agreement with CSAT before the March 30 meeting of the Section VI Athletic Council, which would also need to approve the merger.

In the meantime, board members said they would like Banker to explore other options, including ways for Veltri, who is in his second year as coach, to build up the program from within the district.

“I’d like to see some support for him and a chance for him to grow that program before we go down this road,” O’Malley said. “I don’t think we’ve exhausted all the options.”