The offseason has been more about politics than football in the southern tier, and not everyone is happy about it.
“We shouldn’t have broke the merge, that’s all I can say,” Maple Grove football coach Curt Fischer said.
Chautauqua Lake and Maple Grove were faced with a conundrum when Section VI decided their consistent success with a combined Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake Thunder Dragons constituted a move to Class B despite their BED meeting the Class C criteria. When the schools' appeal was denied they opted to split their varsity programs, with Chautauqua Lake playing in Class C and Maple Grove moving down to Class D.
Whenever programs split in two, the first question is always whether the numbers are there to support it. For these two program there are enough bodies … barely. The issue is depth. An injury or two and either team is in a lot of trouble.
Maple Grove has 32 players total for varsity and JV, and the plan is to keep around 23 at the varsity level. The forecast for the future doesn’t look great either, as less and less kids in Western New York are picking up the sport.
“If you look at the little leagues right now, it’s bad,” Fischer said. “The little league numbers are horrendous. We’re talking 13, 14 (kids).”
There were 21 players donning Chautauqua Lake’s new Syracuse-style Riddel helmets on day one, but head coach Adam Erickson said he hopes they’ll have 25 to 30 players when the team is at full strength.
Right now there's no concrete plan to bring the teams back together in the future, but both schools are aware it might become a necessity due to numbers.
"I would say the program is either going to die or we’ll re-merge," Fischer said. “I don’t know if re-merging will happen. We’ll see. So there probably won’t be football here in a few years.”
Former teammates, players who grew up together as brothers in battle are now playing on different sides of the lake. That doesn’t mean communication is entirely cut off. The teams will hold joint practices in the fall, and conversation with the coaches is key with the schools still sharing a JV program.
“Our coaching staffs are still incredibly close,” said Erickson, a former player and coach at Brockport. "I still have family that coaches at Maple Grove."
The two schools underwent a pleasant divorce, but the talent wasn’t exactly split 50/50.
Maple Grove held onto Fischer, who coach the successful combined team. With him went a majority of the top contributors for the Thunder Dragons in 2015. Running backs Brad Benson and Nick Fabrizio and wide receiver Mitch Padilla give Fischer plenty of pieces to work with.
Chautauqua Lake is more of a ground-up build. The school kicked off the process by selecting Erickson as their head coach, promoting him from head JV coach. Defensive coordinator BJ Monacello was brought in from Pennsylvania-power Cathedral Prep. They’ll rely on junior quarterback Devin Pope, who did not play football in 2015, to kick start the Thunderbirds.
Both coaches know they have enough players for this season, but the big mystery is if they have enough talent to succeed apart. Erickson has a group that he’s familiar with, but one with only three seniors and very little varsity experience. Fischer has the stars and speed, but has to compete in a tough Class D division without much size.
As Erickson said, "You've got to start somewhere."