East Hampton head coach Joe McKee said it was a sight to see, walking up to the football field on the first day of practice on Monday afternoon and seeing over 50 student-athletes ready to go.
It’s a stark contrast from nearly five years ago when East Hampton made the tough decision to fold its football program due to declining numbers — which was the case for two seasons — before Bonac returned to the junior varsity ranks in 2017. Last season, the JV squad went 6-1, leading up to its reemergence to varsity this season.
While there were a number of factors for the declining numbers, McKee, along with his coaching staff, felt it necessary to reintroduce the community to the game of football as safely as it could with a simple flag football program. Just as there were multiple reasons as to why football was not a big sport in East Hampton the past few years, there are an equal number of reasons why it has come back, but the flag football program has proved to be a boon to the school program.
It has led to a new-found love for the game, as evident in the numbers on Monday afternoon.
“We even had some new kids come out yesterday who we were not expecting to. I was like, what are you kidding me? We’ve been fighting and struggling to get kids, and now we have 50 to 60 kids? I was like, get out of here,” an ecstatic McKee said on Monday evening. “It’s definitely very gratifying to know that all the time we spent building a program has come to fruition. I don’t want to take anything away from what we did as a coaching staff, but I gotta give it to the kids. They built the numbers up themselves. Kids like Kevin Bunce, who from day one, has done nothing but recruit kids and ask kids to come out and play for the team. And little by little, as time wore on, we got a bunch more kids.”
East Hampton rejoins what is now a very different landscape this season, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also a few caveats specific to its program. The football season across Suffolk County has been modified from the usual eight games to six —a change due to COVID — which forced the teams to play within smaller leagues rather than larger divisions. East Hampton will compete in League VIII against Babylon, Center Moriches, Elwood/John Glenn, Hampton Bays, Port Jefferson and Wyandanch.
The caveat is that because East Hampton is considered, by enrollment numbers, a Division III school but playing down to Division IV, it is not eligible to make the postseason this season, and at least for now, next season as well.
But just getting on the field and knowing they will be playing a varsity game in just over a week was exciting for the players, said senior captain Drew Salamy.
“We’ve been waiting for this for months,” he said. “We’re all so ready, especially the seniors who will be playing their last year.”
Salamy leads what is a large senior class, which McKee said means that even though they may not have any varsity experience, they do bring a bevy of playing experience with them from the JV, which should help. Seniors Topher Cullen and Kevin Bunce are co-captains along with Salamy, with all three playing at the skill positions on offense; Cullen a 6-foot-4-inch, lefty-throwing quarterback, Bunce at running back and Salamy as a wide receiver.
The Bonackers will also boast what McKee thinks will be a strong line on both sides of the ball in seniors Sebastian Sanchez, Sy Webb and Rene Criollo. Bryan Pannash, another senior, has transferred back to East Hampton after attending private school Canterbury the past few years. He will be a wide receiver and defensive back for the Bonackers.
Pierson also comes back on board with Bonac after playing the past few seasons at Southampton, which, for the first time in its 100-plus year history is not fielding a varsity team this season due to declining numbers. Key members coming over from Sag Harbor who were integral parts of the Mariners last season include seniors Richard Barranco and Hudson Brindle. Barranco will pair up with Bunce as the team’s middle linebackers, while Brindle is a skill player who can be used in all facets of the game on offense, defense and special teams.
The first few games of the season will be very telling, McKee said, of where his program stands amongst some of the best the county has to offer. The season opens at home against Babylon on Saturday, March 13, at 1 p.m. Then the Bonackers will head to Elwood/John Glenn for their week two matchup on March 18 at 4 p.m.
“I think that first game will be a really big statement game,” Salamy said. “Not too many people expect us to be able to compete this year, but we have a talented team, and if we play the way we’re capable of playing I think a lot of people will be surprised.”