When the 2019 varsity season ended abruptly for Southampton’s football team because it didn’t have enough players for its season finale at Port Jefferson, school officials and coaches knew they had to go back to the drawing board to come up with a way to bump numbers up in the program — or face the possibility of not having a program at all.
Two years later, that dire possibility has become a reality — at least on the varsity and junior varsity level.
For the second consecutive season, Southampton did not have the prerequisite number of players (16) to field varsity or junior varsity football teams, and it looked as if the district wasn’t going to have any football team at any level. But in a last ditch effort, Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips held a meeting Monday night and enough student-athletes showed up and committed to create a junior high team this season.
Phillips said there will be around 18 players on the team, not many more than the required 16, so the players who have made the commitment, he said, will have to stick with it. Matt Babb will be the head coach of the team, assisted by Shawn Smith.
Phillips said he, Babb and Smith were recruiting players as late as Friday, a full week before the team’s first game of the season was scheduled against Westhampton Beach. Without the appropriate number of practices (10), though, that game will be postponed until next month, Phillips said.
“I’m just glad and hopeful, Phillips said on Tuesday morning. “I let the kids and parents know this isn’t something that they can decide in a few weeks [is not] something they want to do anymore, because if you do, it’s going to impact the rest of the season.”
Phillips said he wished he still had the handful of Bridgehampton student-athletes who would have been at his disposal, but when it looked as if Southampton wasn’t going to have any football teams at all a few weeks ago, Bridgehampton decided to send its players back to East Hampton, which it had done traditionally before sending them to Southampton the past few years.
While the fact that Southampton will have a junior high team this season is welcoming news, the fact it’s been a real struggle the past few years to field a team is a bit of a headscratcher, not only for Phillips, but local youth football coaches. Two years ago, not long after Southampton’s varsity season ended abruptly, there was a glimmer of hope in a South Fork fifth- and sixth-grade Police Athletic League team, made up of players from Southampton, Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton and East Hampton. That team ran the table, going 9-0 en route to a championship. Some of those players, at least the current eighth graders, were expecting to play up on Southampton’s JV this season, their PAL coach Randy Davis said.
But when a throng of freshmen opted not to play football this fall, Phillips and Davis said, that was the beginning of the end.
“We had 13 kids on JV in the shortened COVID season last spring, so we had to fold that because you need at least 16 players. We had good numbers on junior high, a lot of eighth graders, but I don’t think we had more than 13 kids at a practice over the summer, so again, we had to fold the team.
“It’s very sad that’s where we’re at,” Phillips added. “But with no real feeder program, no PAL program, there are a lot of things factoring in. A lot of it is demographics, lack of success, but there’s just no grassroots program that is feeding into the district at the moment, and that’s key.”
Phillips sent out a survey in June to gauge interest throughout the district, which included Southampton, Tuckahoe and Our Lady of the Hamptons, for students in grades three through six. He said he got eight responses back.
“There’s been no community involvement really to pick it up. Where are all the football parents? How come no one is passing the torch? Is interest level that low where no one is interested?” Phillips wondered.
Davis, who has a son in the Bridgehampton School District who plays football, said the stars were aligned for Southampton’s JV team this season to take a big step forward, based off the progress that the junior high team had seen in 2019. That team went undefeated, winning by an average of 45 points, he said, and didn’t allow an opposing team to score until the final game of the season — in which all of its starters were out.
He said Southampton not having a team this season was disappointing, to say the least.
“All the work you put into it, you know the talent is there. They’re all such a dream, so athletic,” Davis explained. “I don’t know what the future plan is. I started out playing with the Bridgehampton kids in East Hampton, then we went to Southampton, now we’re back with East Hampton. We just want to play football. We even got new Bridgehampton kids to sign up this season.”
Phillips said that at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to the community doing something, such as a local flag football program, to try and drum up interest in the sport.
To that end, on the western side of Southampton Town, Rich Doulos, who stepped down as the varsity football head coach at Hampton Bays, has started the Baymen Flag Football League, which is set to debut October 3.
Doulos had a number of reasons for stepping down as coach, the most important was to spend more time with his wife and son. He said he didn’t like to see his young son come home from school, and with no other real options, with no Hampton Bays PAL anymore, turn the TV on instead of playing sports.
Additionally, he saw where the Hampton Bays football program was heading and thought he could do more for it by starting a feeder program, such as flag football, a program that is starting to pay huge dividends out in East Hampton. That program was started by East Hampton varsity football head coach Joe McKee, and after just a few years, his Bonac Flag Football program has over 150 players and is starting to see significant increases in numbers for tackle football at the school level.
Doulos, who bounced ideas off McKee, hopes to duplicate that, and early numbers are good. He has over 50 players signed up and that’s only with Hampton Bays residents. For more information on the league, go to baymenflagfootball.com.
Doulos made it a point to say this isn’t just about promoting football, it’s about promoting athleticism. But if it ends up helping the local football programs, so be it.
“This is for the kids who maybe don’t know football, or for the kids who do know football and want something else to do. But this is really for them to be running around, having fun and promoting athleticism through football,” he explained. “My hope is that they’ll stick with it and want to play junior high football.”
The situation surrounding Southampton football is dire, and Phillips said if there truly isn’t any interest, he may have to start looking at some alternatives for students. Although it’s very early in the process, Phillips mentioned the district is looking into starting an esports club. Esports is competitive, organized video gaming, which can be played head-to-head individually but in teams as well, and is gaining momentum throughout the country. Many esports events are held in packed arenas that are televised either nationally or via streaming options such as Twitch, and many colleges are starting to offer scholarships for it.
That’s not to say that Phillips has completely given up on football, which has a long and storied history within the district.
“Do we do a good enough job of trying to reach the potential players and parents of those players?” Phillips asked. “Where do people go to find out about such things? It’s so hard to find out where the community goes for such info. I know in some areas they put a big sign out in high traffic areas that says, ‘Football Registration For 2021 Season.’ I don’t see that in Southampton. I would love to hear some feedback on what we could possibly do.”