At the end of January, Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Pierson, Ross and Southampton school officials, coaches, parents and student-athletes all met at Pierson High School to discuss the possibility of combining to form one conglomerate of a South Fork football team. While many seemed to be on board with the idea, it was ultimately shot down for various reasons.
Fast forward nearly a year later and another similar meeting was held, this time in the Southampton High School cafeteria and hosted by Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips. The meeting, held on Thursday, December 5, was called to discuss the future of its football program with coaches, parents and student-athletes.
At the end of the varsity football season, Southampton, which already combines with Pierson and Bridgehampton, had to forfeit its final regular season game at Port Jefferson because it did not have enough eligible players due to injuries and other issues.
That was the last straw for Phillips, who just days later questioned whether the program could continue in its current state, and admitted that he was going to have to take a hard look at all of the options. That long look started last week.
“We’ve been struggling and limping to get through a season, and like I said, I don’t see, especially with little to no PAL program in the area, an explosion in numbers coming up,” he said. “We could just do the same old thing and go into next season with 35 or so players and hope for the best. But it’s just not good for a lot of reasons. So I think it’s a matter of time before we just don’t have a program, or we’re forced into combining.”
The list of options is long and exhaustive, and there are caveats to each one. Like Phillips said, the program can continue going into each season with 35 players for the varsity and junior varsity seasons. Another option would be to drop varsity altogether and just play a JV season. But in that case, it would force all seniors, of which there are expected to be about 10 or so next season, to not play, since they’re not allowed to at the JV level.
Southampton has one of the oldest running football programs on the East End, having been around for over 100 years, and it has never canceled its varsity program.
“The thought of going JV only is that you would build your numbers up with ninth and 10th graders, and that if they were to have some success, that would get more kids interested and involved and you could build up the program. But I don’t know if anyone’s done the research and has the data to prove any of that works,” Phillips explained.
“It’s not just us. There are lot of small schools out there who are trying to figure out what to do, whether it’s combining with a neighboring district or going to eight-man football, but I don’t know how viable that is.”
The discussion of possibly combining with East Hampton will come up once again, perhaps this month, Phillips said, and hopefully before Christmas, since the decision to combine has to be made prior to February 1. Phillips said he has reached out to East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo and they will sit down once again, along with school officials and coaches, to see if combining the programs is the way to go.
From what Phillips and Pierson Athletic Director Eric Bramoff hear, East Hampton is set to go into next fall with both varsity and JV programs after not fielding a varsity program since 2016. East Hampton did have a JV team this year that was successful.
Phillips and Bramoff both pointed to the combined program of boys lacrosse, the South Fork Islanders, which encompasses players from the same school districts, and how that situation has become successful. Maybe not necessarily on the field and in terms of wins and losses, but how the program is building and it could be successful as early as this upcoming spring.
That program moved up from Division II to Division I, and one of the drawbacks of combining the football programs would be that it would have to, due to its combined enrollment numbers, play in Division I. All teams involved have played in Division IV the past couple of seasons with the smallest programs in the county.
While having to play in Division I may scare some parents and players, Phillips and Bramoff warn that playing in Division IV could become more difficult. With a few Division IV teams already stating that they will go to just a JV season next year, that means teams will have to drop down from Division III to Division IV, making it most likely a very competitive division.
And, if the South Fork team were to combine and stay in Division IV, Section XI, the governing body of Suffolk County high school athletics, will most likely, as it has done in the past, not make it eligible for postseason play.
“Much like with lacrosse, I think the positives outweigh the negatives,” Phillips said about combining. “You have more players, more depth, more competition. At the end of the day, I just want our kids to be able to play football.”
At last week’s meeting, Bramoff was a staunch supporter of next year’s seniors, who again, if there were just JV programs from Southampton to East Hampton, would miss out on playing their final seasons. He said all involved may have to think “outside the box” when coming up with a solution. If all programs just go to JV, but the seniors are allowed to play in an eight-man league, that may solve the issue of the seniors being able to get out on a field, he said.
“We, as a community, from Southampton to Montauk, have these young men who have been playing football through PAL up until now and identify as football players. And I played football in college, but I never played football in high school. And what I hear from almost every player is how enjoyable their senior seasons were,” he said. “So am I slightly biased this year? Yes. I have a player like Hudson Brindle who started playing football at East Hampton. He’s bounced around and has now played at Southampton, which he’s loved, but it would be upsetting to me if he were not able to play his senior season.
“I’m all for doing something that is sustainable,” Bramoff added. “I think we’re close. I can’t speak for everyone’s individual feelings, but my job as AD at Pierson is to give my kids, especially my seniors, an opportunity to participate in a sport they love.”
Logistics, such as transportation, who plays what games where and practices where, are all tough issues that Bramoff admits that he, Phillips and all the other ADs will have to deal with. But they currently deal with it with boys lacrosse, and after all, that’s what they’re there for.
“I have to publicly commend Joe and Darren. From the beginning, for years now, they’ve realized the issues and have tried to be as proactive as possible. But it’s hard to have a conversation in a room full of [large school coaches] who have no idea what we’re talking about,” he said. “You can’t explain to a William Floyd the issues we’re having. And if it weren’t for Joe and Darren, we’d have no football out here right now. I thank them both for their giving my students a place to play, but I don’t like going back and forth between the two programs — merge the programs. That’s my public opinion on it: merge the programs.”