A seven-game regular season is too short for Amherst football coach Jason Beckman. His players don’t get enough games, and he doesn’t get enough time during the season to work with them.
“If we had another week on the calendar, an eight-game regular season before you got to bowl games, that makes a difference,” Beckman said. “That’s development for your players, opportunities for them to get on the field, and what we want to do is make the programs in our area be as good as they can be.”
As the Section VI football playoffs begin Friday, Beckman isn't the only coach who wants to see a longer regular season.
The Buffalo News asked 34 area high school football coaches and 119 players what they would like to see changed about the game. No answers were provided to respondents and yet 33 percent of the coaches and nearly 20 percent of the players said they wanted a longer season, which was the most popular answer for both groups.
“If there’s any coach that’s been happy with a seven-game schedule, I haven’t met him yet,” said Ken Stoldt, the Section VI football chairman and a member of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association football committee. “And why it hasn’t expanded, I haven’t been given an answer.”
Timm Slade, the executive director for Section VI, said there is a proposal to the NYSPHSAA to move the football state championships back one week, so that they would be played after Thanksgiving. The NYSPHSAA also is looking at the possibility of changing the start date for high school practices in the fall.
“There’s going to be a vote at some point at the state level, and hopefully it will take place in February,” Slade said.
But, Slade cautioned, “even if they move state finals back, it may not allow for an additional week of competition. The start date of football might be altered. If the start date isn’t altered, it would open the possibility of an eight-game regular-season schedule.”
The start date for practice this fall was Aug. 14, with the regular season beginning Aug. 31.
The state championships are Nov. 23-24 in Syracuse, meaning there are 13 game weekends. State rules for public schools allow for 10 games before regional, state semifinal and state championship games. The 10 include sectional playoffs.
For example, West Seneca West won the Class A state title last year at 13-0; Maple Grove lost in the Class D championship game to finish 11-2.
Slade said there is no plan to add games beyond the current maximum. The proposal, however, could allow teams that do not qualify for sectionals to play additional games.
High school football coaches and players who spoke with The Buffalo News say they want a longer season so that players get more time on the field over the course of their four years in a football program. They also want a longer season so that players can gain more exposure to college recruiters, and to put New York high school football on a competitive level that is comparable to neighboring states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey.
Mike Pataky, a junior at Orchard Park, wants an eighth game on the schedule so that as a senior, he has more time with his teammates.
“New York State has very short seasons compared to most of the other states,” said Pataky, a tight end/linebacker. “Since they play more games in other states, that means they have more film on their players, which gives them an advantage in the recruiting process. We have less games, and that means less film.”
The current seven-game schedule in Section VI football is three games shorter than the 10-game regular seasons in Ohio and Pennsylvania. For a basis of comparison, it's also a game shorter than the eight-game regular season in Maine, a state with a fraction of the participation numbers of New York. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations participation survey for the 2017-2018 school year, 30,253 boys and girls participated in New York high school football; 3,450 boys and girls participated in Maine high school football.
“We are clearly on the lower end (in scheduling) when you compare it to any other state,” said Jeff Sabatino, the coach at John F. Kennedy in Cheektowaga. “When you add that up over the course of four years, it’s not just one season, but for a kid entering high school, that’s a lot of high school football games they’re losing over four years. And you can’t play football in the offseason with a travel team, so it’s an isolated sport. You can only play the games on the schedule, and you can only do it within a small window.”
Dominic Ferguson, a linebacker and wide receiver at Kenmore East, welcomes the variety an eighth game would bring to a schedule.
“Playing a longer season would result in more possible opponents, and seeing different faces, instead of virtually playing the same people every year,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson also likes the idea of having the structure of football season for a longer period.
“A longer season also allows kids to have more motivation to do better in school, to give athletes more time to bond as a team, and to further develop their games to try and make it to the next level, college,” Ferguson said.
Starpoint coach Al Cavagnaro advocates for nine regular-season games. He said a seven-game regular season doesn’t satisfy the amount of work football players put into preparing, which has become a year-round endeavor. Starpoint’s players, Cavagnaro said, return to the weight room the week after Thanksgiving, then go to camps and to seven-on-seven passing tournaments in the spring and summer, then start high school practices in August.
When Cavagnaro started coaching in the mid-1980s, coaches met two weeks before the start of practices to plan for the season, and collected equipment the day after the season was finished.
“For the amount of effort put forth now, seven or eight regular-season games just isn’t enough for the commitment that goes into it,” Cavagnaro said. “People can say basketball has a similar commitment, but they play 18 games. This is the one sport in high school with the least amount of games and the players do as much, if not more, than everybody else.”
Other changes that coaches and players would like to see:
- More competition between public and private schools.
- Better equipment and safety. "Anything that keeps the players safe by being sure to teach proper technique and by always making sure equipment is safe," said Springville-Griffth's Alex Francisco.
- Flexibility on uniforms rules, including being able to wear visors of a different color or forms of jewelry.
- Increased participation and greater school spirit at games. "More community involvement, especially in New York," Amherst's Sean Murphy said. "I want the stands to be full every Friday night." Added Eden's Colton Steltz, "More hype, more excitement. Make high school football a big event."
- Adoption of the NFL rule that players are ruled down only after a defensive player makes contact. High school football currently uses the college rule that a player is considered down when he hits the ground. "If you catch the ball and fall without any contact, you should be able to get up and run," Lewiston-Porter's Gino Fontanarosa said.
Among the other questions asked, The News surveyed players on their favorite NFL team, their favorite college team, if they played other sports, and whom their favorite NFL player is.
- Favorite NFL team: The hometown team is the most popular choice, as 72 players chose the Buffalo Bills, and eight are fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Surveyed players also root for the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers (5 each), New York Giants (4), New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers (3 each), Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders (2 each), Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens (one each).
- Favorite NFL player: Houston Texans defensive start J.J. Watt was the most popular pick. Eight listed Watt, and seven listed Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. Six players listed Bills running back LeSean McCoy and defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
- Favorite college team: 26 players are Ohio State fans, 16 are Oregon fans and 12 are fans of the hometown University at Buffalo.
- Other sports: Basketball is the most popular participatory sport; 49 of the 119 surveyed play basketball, 39 participate in track and field and 26 play baseball. Of the players surveyed, some play more than two sports.