East Hampton Athletic Director Gaining Section XI Support For Geographic Placement

East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo, with Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips, speaking to parents at a January 2020 meeting. DREW BUDD

Joe Vasile-Cozzo is pleased by a big 6-2 Section XI placement committee vote casted September 21 to take the next step toward implementing geographically based scheduling, but the East Hampton athletic director doesn’t want to get too excited just yet.

That’s because Vasile-Cozzo has been in this situation plenty of times before — steps away from the governing body of Suffolk County sports approving league realignments that would divide schools up by location instead of enrollment. The athletic director said for his student-athletes, especially, making the over two-hour drive to and from school districts like Amityville, Harborfields and Huntington every season has grown increasingly taxing on his kids.

“That’s a burden on the kids, a burden on the parents, a burden on the coaches and on the district,” Vasile-Cozzo said on the transportation issue, which has been compounded by busing problems related to driver shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bonackers have been forced to host games on Sundays, even, because far west competition cannot leave school until 4 or 4:40 p.m., and by that time, it’s too dark to complete in an outdoor game since there’s no lights on the East Hampton fields.

“We’ve been here before — and have always gotten knocked down — but I think between COVID-19 and the bus issues, there’s a real roll forward to make geographic placement the leading criteria for the five classifications of sports where they do enrollment,” Vasile-Cozzo said.

Class AA, A, B, C and D are the five classifications, which are broken down based on enrollment. The East Hampton athletic director is not saying those classifications need to change, but that the schools in these classes then be divided into, say, western, central and eastern Long Island leagues. This would mean his Bonackers would, instead, potentially face teams like Hampton Bays, Westhampton Beach, Eastport-South Manor and Shoreham-Wading River.

Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs said that, as written, Vasile-Cozzo’s proposal would affect boys soccer, girls volleyball, boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball and boys and girls track and field. Leagues for some sports — like football, lacrosse and boys volleyball — would remain unchanged because they are power-ranked, while others like tennis, golf and bowling would as well because they are already aligned geographically.

“You’re not losing the integrity of the classification,” said Vasile-Cozzo, who added over the years schools like Class AA’s Central Islip and Riverhead and Class A’s Westhampton Beach and Sayville have jumped on board. “There’s a lot of support behind this.”

“Joe and I have discussed this concept for a few years,” Riverhead Athletic Director Brian Sacks said. “I think at this time with busing issues, budget issues and other situations occurring, it is the right time to discuss this option.”

East Hampton Board of Education President J.P. Foster echoed his athletic director’s sentiment.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s kind of fallen on deaf ears over the years, but it’s finally getting some traction now,” he said. “And we’ll take it while we can.”

Vasile-Cozzo made a presentation to Section XI’s Athletic Council in April. That 35-person committee, with six representatives from each of the four conferences, as well as the 22-member Executive Board, saw merit in making the change — that if approved would take effect next school year — countywide. For it to be approved, though, Vasile-Cozzo’s proposal needed to be approved by the placement committee, which pushed it through by a 6-2 vote on September 21, before getting go-aheads from conference chairs. If that happens, a committee is formed to create a plan to be implemented, and then it’s back to the Athletic Council.

Vasile-Cozzo is scheduled to make a presentation to the conference chairs this Friday, October 8, and should they approve the measure, it would be up for vote within the Athletic Council October 13.

Central Islip Athletic Director Larry Philips, a Conference I representative on the Placement Committee, said Vasile-Cozzo always does a great job presenting and advocating for not only the East Hampton School District, but others on the East End.

“The current placement handbook puts the emphasis on fair and equitable competition with basic enrollment as the first option. Geography can be considered, along with other criteria, and, in my opinion, that makes sense,” Philips said. “Student-athletes from East Hampton spend an inordinate amount of time traveling to and from contests. If the integrity of contests can be maintained, while prioritizing less travel, that would be a win-win.”

Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips, a Conference IV chair on the Placement Committee who said he has always supported Vasile-Cozzo’s proposal, agrees the adjustment makes a lot of sense.

“My line of thinking is if there’s, let’s say, 18 Class AA schools, what difference does it matter what league you’re in if you still have to play the Class A schools in the playoffs?” he asked. “I can empathize with Joe because I know what the traffic situation is — other schools have no idea. They just don’t understand the trade parade in the afternoon from 3 to 8 p.m. It probably takes him 40 minutes just to get over the canal. It’s crazy. And that’s what I try to explain to other people. It’s something that until you experience it, you can’t even explain.”

What he said has been an unfortunate obstacle for Vasile-Cozzo is convincing athletic directors to put the kids before their coaches. Phillips did, though, add the East Hampton leader has worked hard to get superintendents and other administrators involved in the discussion to look at the bigger picture.

“I know coaches look at a league and they say, ‘Oh, now this league is tougher. I have no chance to win,’ because of geographic placement. Which is ridiculous. It’s tough when no one knows what you’re dealing with and they’re looking at it for their own self interests,” Phillips said. “We as athletic directors are supposed to do what’s in the best interest of the kids — academically and athletically. It doesn’t make sense for Joe’s student-athletes to go to Huntington when they can play Westhampton Beach or Eastport-South Manor.”

But he did admit that many athletic directors, especially the newer ones and others experiencing more and more travel woes, are finally seeing the merit behind the proposal — especially when junior varsity and varsity kids are traveling far distances on the same bus to a boys basketball game, and are not getting picked up by their parents. They are forced to wait until both games are completed before they can head home. For those in East Hampton, they’d have to make the drive to and from a game, wait for both games to be completed and then potentially head home to Springs or Montauk after making it back to the high school.

“We want to do what’s in the best interest for the kids and their well-being. We want them to have time to get home and do homework, eat and get to bed. It would seem logical that we would do things geographically,” Phillips said. “To me, there’s no real good reason why we can’t do it. And it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing policy. If it works for the Class AA and Class A schools then great, and if it doesn’t work for the Class B, C and D schools, we should look at what works for us. But until we try it, we’ll never know the benefit.”