Derby football’s decision to forgo the rest of the season is tough, but the right one

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Tradition cannot put on epaulettes. Deep football history, the pride of a small town in the Naugatuck Valley, can’t dress up for Friday night’s games against Ansonia and Seymour and Thanksgiving against Shelton.

Even the sparkling, over $ 20 million sports complex, a gift from Jane Payden in honor of her promotion major dad and the envy of state high schools, is not equipped with an offensive line.

14-man Derby High did the right thing on Sunday when they announced they were losing their last five games because there weren’t enough athletes to ensure a safe end to the season 2021. No one liked to do it. Giving up the rest of the season is the worst-case scenario.

In doing so, it also raised questions about the long-term viability of a program that dates back to 1902, the potential need to join a cooperative, and the future as the smaller independent football entity (186 boys) of the CIAC. .

Besides, with participation numbers declining over several years across the state and nation, is Derby just an extreme example of a trend many small Connecticut schools are facing?

“People all over the state know about the derby tradition,” said coach Steve Bainer, who replaced George French in January 2020. “We were fully aware that it would be a shock. Not only in Derby, it would be “a shock to the Connecticut high school football system. We did not make the decision lightly. The safety and health of our children is paramount in Derby.”

“At the very least, I think every little school in the state is looking at us right now and saying we don’t want to be in this place then. “

Four state titles, including two since the start of the CIAC playoffs, and three other state finalists. The eighth-most winning streak of all time in Connecticut. Coach Lou DeFilippo with his nine Housatonic League titles and his 116-30-8 record. George Budzinka, Vince Greco, Bob Orchano, Tom Passander et al. John Pagliaro was two-time Ivy League MVP at Yale and Walter Camp All-American First Team…

At 5.3 square miles, Derby may be Connecticut’s smallest city, but it has a big footballing footprint.

“There are a lot of alumni who are passionate about their program and where they grew up and where they played,” said French, who grew up in Derby, played for Derby and coached the Red Raiders at a 44- record. 58 from 2010-2019. “You have a lot of them who have left town, but many who are still in town. For many of them it means the world. For some, no.

“I think a number of different things have come together for a big blow this year. There you are. “

Derby started the season with 28 players, three seniors and four juniors and grew into two seniors with an injury. The team was totally inexperienced. Derby opened 0-5 and was dominated 196-20.

“Coming out of the last two games against Wolcott and Crosby,” said Bainer, “we had a few kids with end-of-season injuries and a few more week to week. There are also kids, with bumps and bruises, we don’t train.

Ahead of the Oxford game, the coaching staff wrote the names of the available players on the board. There were 14. Some positions did not have viable replacements in the event of subsequent injury. Oxford has agreed to postpone the game to Monday night. Last Wednesday, however, Bainer said it had become apparent that he would only be able to dress 15-16 at the most.

“I told my AD Teg Cosgriff, maybe we will have to assess this week,” Bainer said. “I’d rather weather the storm of what might happen from not playing this week than having to live with kids who weren’t ready or couldn’t complete a game on the pitch.”

Bainer was unaware that, per CIAC guidelines, if a team is not in good faith rescheduling postponed matches, they must forgo those contests. Losing one would mean losing the rest.

“Our 14-15 could potentially become 16-18 and maybe 20 highs over the rest of the year,” Bainer said. “It’s without any other injury. And our schedule didn’t get any easier.

There were Ansonia and Seymour, the NVL Powers and some of the best small schools in the state, and the LL Shelton Class, No.6 in Connecticut. Bainer looked around the locker room and saw faces as young as 13 and knew they couldn’t go on like this against physically stronger and more mature opponents. Coach, AD, Principal Jennifer Olson, Superintendent Matthew Conway – the decision was both collaborative and wise.

For the coach and the player, it was personal.

“I have 13-18 year olds in my locker room and they live at a time when Friday nights are the most important thing,” Bainer said. “It wasn’t easy for them. At the same time, our coaches have built a relationship with our children. ‘We love you. We care about you. Sometimes loving yourself, caring for yourself means giving you difficult information.

Bainer, in the 6th year of teaching humanities at Derby, had been a French assistant in 2016-2017. When he took over, he built a team of coaches mainly within the school and around an experienced returning team.

“When I gave up I was exhausted,” said French, 2-8 in his final season. “I have a stepdaughter in her senior year and I wanted to see her play soccer. There were good people like Steve in the building. I wanted to give them a team of seniors to lean on. I felt like it was the right time. “

COVID has struck and canceled everything.

“Some of those feelings and conversations we had this week were very similar to last year,” said Bainer, who brought in a few seniors from last year to speak to the team. “There’s nothing I can say to make you feel better right now. Yet in all of life, people have lost so much in the past year, more than a high school football game.

“Our watchword is perspective. It’s on our boards. It’s in our locker room. No Connecticut child has played a game in the past year. The kids would have loved playing five games where they blew themselves up in most of them.

French said he had four consecutive years of 40-45 players before the number started to decline in 2016. His last full freshman team was 2012 and that group formed their last winning team at 6-4 in 2015. His 2012 team went 6-4 to break a 16-year streak with no winning record. Derby was also 7-4 in 2014.

The key?

“Numbers,” French said. “And, honestly, I had players. The Kriegers, the Bartones, Tyrae Small… at the same time, they went through the youth program and played for years.

The good news is that the first grade class has 61 boys, which is relatively huge compared to the 41, 40 and 44 in the first three grades.

“In my opinion, things could be cyclical,” French said. “With a year off, some children may have lost interest. Decrease in the size of the school and, bang, you’ve got a bigger class, you’re trying to regroup. It goes beyond a cooperative. They haven’t had a full Pop Warner program in Derby in years. There is no real manger. This is a problem in itself. Many of Steve’s children were brand new to the game.

French said there were four Pop Warner teams when he coached, not counting flag football, and that had declined in his senior year. There were no teams last year with COVID, he said, and a flag team this fall.

“There are people involved in Derby Pop Warner who have tried and tried to build it,” he said. “Fall baseball, basketball, there are other options these days.

“We have a lot of new families in town. They don’t know much about Derby. If they know about the past 20 years, you’re in luck. They don’t know the 1969, 1973, 1985 and 1990 teams.

Derby was in a co-op with O’Brien Tech from 2008 to 2010. French said Derby’s numbers exceeded the co-op threshold at the time and while the school waited for a response from the CIAC, O’Brien decided to launch its own program.

“I really don’t know what the answer is,” said French, who assists Craig Bruno at Amity. “I would like to say yes. I do not. Cooperative? Restart at JV level? There are different options for (the Derby administration) to discuss with the CIAC. “

Bainer knew the questions:

“How do we make sure that we don’t put our children and our community back in this situation? How do you get a team into the academic field in the right way, whether it’s a short-term solution or a long-term solution? “

And the answer?

“I don’t think we’re in a position where we can reasonably say right now that we’re going to take all options off the table. It is quite a delicate process to be eligible for a cooperative and find the right partner. These are conversations after Thanksgiving, when all Derby stakeholders, including me, need to figure out what’s best for kids in the future.

Bainer had 16 players to train this week. They will face Ansonia next Thursday night. After missing last season with COVID, Bainer didn’t want his seniors to end up in a junior varsity game. They will celebrate the seniors evening.

“There has been a wave of support from other coaches, administrators and people,” Bainer said. “The children heard from opposing players. Even though we’re going through a rough time, this part is pretty cool. “

And something that Derby hopes will never happen again.

[email protected]; @ jeffjacobs123


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