WW-P High School North’s football team is in jeopardy due to a lack of senior players, and state officials have repeatedly rejected the school district’s preferred solution—a merger with High School South.
If state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington doesn’t overrule decisions by the NJSIAA, which adjudicates scholastic sports matters in New Jersey, it is possible that North will not be able to field a team in the fall.
The district last week filed an appeal with Harrington in a last-ditch effort to have the NJSIAA’s rulings overturned.
The move would also bolster the program at South, which has also seen dwindling participation numbers.
Superintendent David Aderhold said the school district has been monitoring the situation for a few years at North, where there hasn’t been enough players to field a full set of varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams.
In December, school officials at North told Aderhold they were very concerned that next year there wouldn’t be enough players for even one squad.
As of now, Jude Batoon, Brian Murphy, Jack Rome and Tyrell Williams are the only rising seniors returning to the Knights next season. There are also four rising juniors and 16 rising sophomores set to play next year.
That’s only 24 total players with varsity experience as the team heads into summer—a very low number in a sport where teams routinely use 30 or 40 players per game to minimize fatigue, and injuries are commonplace.
The school district has been working to find a resolution since concern was raised by officials at North, and decided that merging with South would bring participation numbers to a healthy level and allow the student-athletes to play safely.
Other options are far less desirable. They include playing the season as an undermanned and largely inexperienced North team or cancelling the season outright. Another option—also rejected by school officials, players and their families—would be for the players to transfer to South or a private school.
“It’s just been a really long process, not only for me, but my family and my peers that play football,” said Murphy, a quarterback. “It’s been hard to keep up with everything that’s going on.”
The WW-P Board of Education approved a resolution in May to allow the North and South teams to do a one-year merger, but the request was denied by the West Jersey Football League, 76-16. It was also rejected by the NJSIAA Leagues and Conferences Committee, 3-2, when WW-P appealed. Aderhold appealed again to the NJSIAA Executive Committee on the basis of emergent circumstances, but was denied a chance to be heard on the resolution at its June 7 meeting, the final meeting of the NJSIAA this academic year.
Jack DuBois, who oversees football for the NJSIAA, says the vote went by the book. NJSIAA rules prohibit Group III and above schools from co-opping in football for fear that they could form a powerhouse team. The NJSIAA divides public schools into four groups based on enrollment, with Group I being for the smallest schools and Group IV for the largest.
“It’s just a fact that it was not permitted by our constitution of bylaws for a co-op in football of Group III or larger schools,” DuBois said.
WW-P North, a Group III school, and WW-P South, a Group IV school, tried to alleviate that fear by offering to forfeit all playoff and division championship chances and offered all the power points available to any opposing team as well.
“Their concern seems to be the creation of a powerhouse,” Aderhold said. “We’re simply looking for an opportunity for participation for our students. Put any sanctions you want against us, we want to get our kids on the field in the safe way.”
The NJSIAA Advisory Committee in May did endorse WW-P’s proposed legislation change that would allow Group III schools and larger to play as co-ops with stiff postseason penalties, but that move just puts the proposal into the 2017-2018 legislative cycle and won’t be debated until December.
“It doesn’t help for this season,” Aderhold said. “It doesn’t help these kids.”
WW-P has one final option to bring the football merger together this fall. On June 6, the school board authorized administration to appeal to Harrington to support the one-year co-op of the North and South football teams.
The appeal came in the form of a request for emergent relief, which Aderhold filed with the commissioner’s office the following day. The NJSIAA had three days to submit its argument against the co-op.
Gerri Hutner, district director of communications, could not give a timeline for Harrington to make a decision. Regardless of that decision, Aderhold said he is committed to finding a solution.
“My pledge to these players is I’m not leaving them without a team to play with,” Aderhold said. “One way or another, this is going to become an ongoing option. Either we’re going to make a week-by-week decision or we’re going to find a way to have these kids play next season as a co-op team.”
The district action asks Harrington to consider allowing students from either school to participate in the other school’s athletics or co-curricular activities if they are eliminated from their own school’s programming.
Aderhold said that ultimately the action will affect more than just WW-P football. North baseball has concerns, lacrosse numbers have dwindled and the hockey programs have already been combined (Ice hockey co-ops have no group restrictions). Wrestling numbers have been low for years, and softball has had some problems running programs. “We’re talking about five or six sports [in jeopardy] that if this resolution is upheld could support our district,” he said.
South’s football program isn’t much better off, with 11 rising seniors but only a half-dozen rising juniors. South could easily find itself in the same situation as North in a few years, said Skip Edwards, South’s head coach. “I don’t see South being far off from North the way things are going,” he said.
Edwards has had sign-up meetings with numbers as high as 50 and as low as 38 for this upcoming fall. “We’re paper thin,” Edwards said. “We can’t afford to have anyone go down.”
WW-P North and South played last winter together in ice hockey. This year’s North baseball program only had enough players for a varsity squad. It’s a troublesome sign for the future, parents, players and school officials have told the News.
“In my second season, we didn’t have a freshman team,” said Jeff Reilly, who has been North’s football head football coach for three years. “Once you lose a level, you lose a group [of students]. Right there, I had a feeling that numbers were slipping.”
Reilly was encouraged when 22 freshmen came out for last fall’s football team and WW-P North had a freshman team. Now only 16 of them are signed up to return. It was like that for the rising senior class, which started with over 20 players as freshmen.
“We did have a lot of kids. Some had to move to other parts of Jersey,” said senior Jude Batoon, adding that others players’ parents won’t allow them to play due to injury concerns.
“Others had other commitments so they couldn’t commit the time and effort into football. It’s a lot of different factors. It just became too much for some people. However, the people that did stick with it know the true value of the program,” he said.
At an interest meeting for this fall, the Knights had 27 rising freshmen. Only 12 of them signed up officially.
“I learned in my first year, you’ll have 80 kids that sign up and you’ll have 60 that come out,” Reilly said. “Unfortunately that’s how it’s been. You have your sign-ups, and it’d be great if every single one of them stuck with it and were with it the whole time. It’s one thing to sign up, and another to stick with the whole thing.”
He acknowledges that football is a big commitment for students. “There’s a lot that goes into it. You can’t cut that commitment out,” he said.
Reilly has done plenty to get more players. He’s gone to the wrestling banquet at Community Middle School, made his pitch at eighth grade activities night, held a well-attended football camp at North, contacted middle school coaches and had his varsity players speak to middle schoolers and their parents.
‘I want those kids to have the chance to play football like everyone else.’
North football booster club president Sandy Johnson says Reilly has done everything possible to recruit more players. “I see him constantly, at the track meets, at wrestling, really being extremely visible, making sure he’s talking to each kid not once but a lot just to make sure he hits them up several times and maybe they change their mind,” Johnson said.
The West Windsor Wildcats Pop Warner program is doing its part. It has strong numbers at its lowest levels and good retention rates, which could bode well for the future.
“We have a solid pipeline filling in one team,” said Wildcats president Don Haas. “If North and South combined, they’d have a nice varsity squad of probably 40 juniors and seniors, I’d project.”
The Wildcats continue to try to attract new players. They introduced a spring flag football league four years ago that has helped strengthen participation, and they’ve seen higher numbers of WW-P residents playing at the lower levels in recent years, Haas said. But even this year the numbers at their oldest age group, the level on the verge of entering high school, were bolstered by participation from neighboring towns, not just WW-P residents.
Johnson says several factors are in play that are affecting the football program. One is the greater awareness of the risk of head injuries and the potential long-term issues they pose. Another, he says, is that kids specialize a lot more these days on a single sport, rather than several. “You rarely see the two- and three-varsity sport athletes,” he says.
North has middle school coaches pushing kids to play in multiple sports. Haas goes out of his way to reassure the safety emphasis for the Wildcats. A surgeon, Haas gave a community presentation on June 8 that highlighted medical studies on football’s safety.
“It’s a real sense of family,” Haas said. “People rally around the flag. There’s nothing like football in terms of being a team sport. That’s why so many people are upset with everything going on. When we hear about what’s going on for the seniors at North, it’s devastating. We know those families. They’ve been in the program forever.”
Murphy wants to continue playing beyond high school and has hopes of playing collegiate football. A compromised season could hurt his chances to showcase his abilities.
The last thing anyone in the football community wants to see is the Friday night lights dim for the WW-P North players. It’s why WW-P South is willing to merge, even at the cost of its playoff and division title chances.
“I want those kids to have the chance to play football like everyone else,” Edwards said. “Whatever’s good for the kids.”
The WW-P North players have kept an eye on the legal proceedings, but they have been preparing as though nothing is out of the ordinary. The four seniors have been leading the Knights in getting ready for a season that is still in limbo.
“They’ve been impressive in that aspect,” Reilly said. “That’s what they’re supposed to do. There are only four of them, but they’re carrying on like there are 25 of them. They’re in there lifting hard. They’re doing their thing. They’re being a high school student-athlete and enjoying that experience.”
WW-P North isn’t sure what football will look like this fall, but the Knights are determined to stick together.
“It brought us all closer,” Batoon said. “We’ve been aware that numbers have been a problem. We’ve always tried to get people in. We know the people that stick with it, the ones that put in the work and the effort, they’re the people we can trust, they’re our family.”