Port Washington withdrew its varsity football team from Nassau’s interscholastic organization this season because the school says it was concerned about injuries and an ability to compete in a conference with similarly sized high schools.
Port Washington has instead elected to play eight exhibition games against four Lower Hudson Valley schools, three Nassau public schools from a lower conference and Long Island Lutheran. The team lost its first game of the season last Saturday, 21-14, to Pelham, of Westchester County and plays at Pearl River in Rockland County this Saturday. The Vikings’ next home game is Sept. 24 against Long Island Lutheran.
The district’s decision to opt out of Nassau’s organized sports setup comes after years of appealing its varsity football team’s placement in Conference I, which includes the county’s 14 largest high schools by enrollment, athletic director Stephanie Joannon said.
Joannon said other schools in Conference I have bigger, stronger players and rosters nearly twice as large as Port Washington. Port Washington has 33 players on its varsity team’s roster this season.
The average roster size of the 13 Conference I teams this year is 42, according to rosters provided to Newsday. East Meadow has the most players with 59. Plainview JFK has the smallest roster with 29.
Port Washington, which has had only one winning season in Conference I since 1999, spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons in a developmental league, which was a two-year experiment by Nassau to give struggling programs a chance to compete. Port Washington went 7-1 both years. Each school in that league returned to its conference in 2014. Port Washington went 1-7 last season and was outscored 282-46.
The bigger concern, according to Joannon, was that players suffered six suspected concussions and made four emergency room trips.
“This is not new to us,” she said. “We’ve appealed our placement in Conference I for seven years. Most of those years were about competitiveness. Not the last two years. Definitely not last year. It’s about safety.
“This decision was really based on safety.”
Section VIII officials said they responded to Port Washington’s concerns about the level of competition in Conference I by offering a “double relief schedule” that would have featured seven of eight games against the lowest seeded teams, executive director Nina Van Erk said.
Port Washington felt that wasn’t enough. In a letter to parents of football players, Joannon said, “This solution still did not address the concerns we expressed regarding the safety and welfare of our players. Asking us to play another year against the same teams and hoping for different result is not acceptable to us.”
Joannon said parents voted whether to play an independent schedule, drop the varsity team and just have a junior varsity squad or cancel the football program altogether. Joannon said the parents were unanimous that the school should not drop football and instead chose to be an independent team.
“There’s definitely a feeling that there’s a lot more stature to play in Conference I than to be in a no-name league, but on the other hand parents know their kids are going to be safer,” said Kathy Oldak, whose son EJ played football four years and graduated in 2014.
Port Washington’s junior varsity team continues to play in Conference I because, Joannon said, the playing conditions at that level are safer and more competitive than on the varsity level in the same conference.
Section VIII has been using high school enrollment to determine the football conferences since the 1980s. Nassau football coordinator Pat Pizzarelli said they use the number of ninth, 10th and 11th graders, including both boys and girls, from the previous school year — effectively the number of returning high school students — to determine what conference each school should be in.
Suffolk County conferences also are set up by enrollment.
Port Washington’s enrollment figure of 1,218 ranks ninth in the county, according to figures provided by Pizzarelli. The enrollment range in Conference I is 989 to 1,787.
But Port Washington believes it is a unique case because it says the interest level among its high school students is not in line with the interest at the other large schools in Nassau. The enrollment numbers in Conference II range from 818 to 986.
“We presented evidence that, even though we are a large school, we might be better served in a different conference,” Joannon said. “But the structure they have is enrollment, enrollment, enrollment.”
Nassau officials believe Port Washington should focus more on growing its program rather than dropping down in conferences.
“If they only have 28 kids on varsity and the teams they are playing have 50, to me that’s an internal problem,” Pizzarelli said. “And they should try to handle that and not expect the county to handle that.”
Port Washington’s varsity players are happy with the school’s decision.
“I think it was the right move for everyone because we couldn’t win in conference I and this gives us a chance to compete with our schedule,” said senior Danny Hassan, 17. “It’s not fun to lose 50 to nothing every game and watch players get injured.”
But Conference I coaches are not happy.
“There’s a lot of hard feelings about it,” said Chris Rogler, coach of 10th-seeded Plainview JFK, whose team beat Port Washington, 42-0, last season. “It takes away one of those competitive games for schools like us... My biggest thing is they didn’t give it a chance.”
Phil Coppola, coach of sixth-seeded Uniondale, said, “I think everybody bent over backward to appease them, and they still left.”
Jericho’s Henry Grishman, chair of Section VIII’s superintendent board, said coaches and athletic directors are discussing possible changes to the enrollment-based conference structure that would address nationwide trend of declining football participation rates. The committee was sparked by Port Washington’s appeal of its conference placement before the superintendent board last spring.
“The goal here is to maintain football here in Section VIII,” Grishman said, “and have all high schools participating in football next year.”