Joint football effort worth a serious look

Football can play an important role at a school. Back when Mount Abraham Union High School adopted the sport, I remember co-athletic director Jeff Stetson making the point that football would serve students that Mount Abe’s other fall sports — soccer and cross country, which both favor greyhounds, not Great Danes — did not. Over the years, it’s fair to say he’s been proven right, regardless of the program’s ups and downs.
And football can be popular. My daughter’s Middlebury Union field hockey games don’t draw like Tiger football — the next radio broadcast from Jette Field will be the first. Otter Valley football draws fans, too. I’ve never forgotten Channel 3 broadcaster Mike McCune looking around at the crowd when OV won a state title at Winooski and wondering if there was anyone left in Brandon. The sport can build community.
Now to the point: Mount Abe and Vergennes union high schools are, from what I understand through the grapevine, at least talking about a joint football program.
Here’s hoping both schools’ officials take it seriously, even though there may well be some obstacles I don’t yet understand and there are a couple that do exist from Mount Abe’s point of view.
Let’s start in Vergennes. Currently, seven VUHS athletes play football for Winooski on a member-to-member agreement. In the past year or so, a group of residents has lobbied officials to consider football at VUHS. It’s my understanding they believe a program can be funded without tax dollars.
My guess is that Vergennes school officials are wary of starting a team — not a cheap proposition, considering uniforms, equipment, field costs, transportation, insurance, and coaching and referees’ pay — because of the possibility private funds could someday fall short.
Meanwhile, a Mount Abe program that won Division IV titles in 2003 and 2004 has struggled since 2005, when Vermont dropped the eight-man D-IV game for three 11-man divisions. The Eagles’ high-water mark since then came in 2008, when they won three games despite many injuries.
This year, 45 students came out for the varsity and junior varsity teams. Injuries hit hard again, and the program has lacked depth to overcome the losses. By way of comparison, OV, a slightly smaller school, lists 34 players just on its varsity roster, and MUHS, only slightly larger than Mount Abe, had 30 freshmen alone sign up this fall.
Even the fine Mount Abe teams of the early ’00s weren’t blessed with tremendous depth. Mount Abe’s soccer and cross-country programs are robust, students have other interests, and the football team draws just so many kids. It’s nobody’s fault, but the numbers are dangerously low for the health of the players and the program.
On the face of it, then, a merger makes sense. Numbers and competitiveness would improve. The financial burden on Mount Abe and its boosters would ease. VUHS would be able to offer football to its students at a fraction of the cost, and boosters could more easily meet fund-raising goals. The long-term health of Mount Abe’s program would be assured. Ties between the communities would be enhanced. Game attendance and gate receipts would rise.
But two questions Mount Abe officials probably must answer are whether a cooperative agreement would jeopardize playing time for their athletes, and how much control the school should retain or give up in entering one.
The first question may be tougher. I know from talking to Jeff Stetson in the past he has understandably been hesitant to enter into a member-to-member deal like that VUHS has with Winooski. It might well be difficult to tell a taxpaying family their kid might not start.
On the other hand, the athlete might well accept a lesser role on a more competitive program. And many athletes might be better off getting a chance to learn on the JV team rather than be pressed too quickly into varsity action because there aren’t enough bodies available. And many taxpayers might be happy to see a cheaper, more successful program — not to mention in the worst-case scenario, none at all. I would hope this objection alone, though understandable, does not override the pluses.
As to the second, it’s fair that Mount Abe keep ultimate decision-making for the foreseeable future. The school and the Bristol community have made the investment in the field, the facilities and the equipment. Maybe a committee to oversee the program could be created with a majority from Mount Abe.
It’s possible there are other issues that can’t be overcome. But I hope those involved consider carefully the benefits for the kids and communities involved as they look at what could be a joint Mount Abe-Vergennes football team as soon as 2010.
And if it happens, the Independent would be happy to sponsor a team-naming contest. The Addison North … ?

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