The combining of South Fork varsity and junior varsity football teams into one team will not happen this year, according to athletic directors Joe Vasile-Cozzo of East Hampton and Darren Phillips of Southampton.
Officials from various school districts on the South Fork met with community residents at the Pierson High School gymnasium on January 30 to discuss the possibility of the Southampton/Pierson/Bridgehampton football program combining with both East Hampton and the Ross School to form one team for the 2019 fall season, and possibly beyond. Both Vasile-Cozzo and Phillips then met with the placement committee of Section XI, the governing body of Suffolk County high school athletics, just days after the community meeting to see if the combined team would be allowed to play in Division IV, alongside the smallest schools in the county, with the chance of qualifying for the postseason, even though the combined team’s enrollment size would be 1,609 and on par with that of some of the largest schools in the county, which play in Division I. Vasile-Cozzo and Phillips argued that, despite what would be the team’s large enrollment size, it realistically wouldn’t be pulling from that large of a pool and asked that it be able to play in Division IV based on its true ability. The placement committee would only allow the team to play in Division IV if it agreed to give up its eligibility for playoffs, but said school officials could choose to play in Division I and vie for a postseason berth with teams such as William Floyd, Ward Melville and Connetquot.
Since Southampton could still field a team for the immediate future with its current numbers, it was going to be the deciding factor on whether or not it would combine with East Hampton and create a program of a conglomerate of schools, much like the South Fork Islanders, the boys lacrosse team made up of student-athletes from Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Pierson, Ross and Southampton. Despite the fact that it has not made the playoffs in 15 years, Southampton decided not to combine if it meant that playoffs were off the table playing in Division IV. Phillips said that with the amount of seniors the team has coming back that it would be hard to try to convince the parents of those players that the playoffs were not a possibility.
“Each year you look at the schedule and you only have to be in the top eight now so it’s a little easier statistically making the playoffs,” he said. “That was a big sticking point for us. We can still field a team so giving up the playoffs just didn’t seem like an option for us in the short term. Long term, there are lot of teams struggling with low numbers, and in a year or two, we may have to be honest with ourselves and really address the situation once again.”
Vasile-Cozzo had said at the community meeting that, in a year or two, Southampton may not have East Hampton as a team to fall back on once it needs the numbers down the road. He said that while he was disappointed with Southampton’s decision not to combine this season, he understood where it was coming from.
“They have obligation still to their players and the parents of those players to make the playoffs. They still have a program,” he said. “Bigger picture, if they do make the playoffs, they’ll play the one or two seed ... is it worth it sacrificing short term for long term? Maybe not, but I don’t hold any hard feelings toward Southampton. Darren and I are on the same page. I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t happen.”
Phillips admitted he was hesitant to make the jump to Division I due to player safety and health concerns and that the idea was off-putting to some players and parents as well. Playing against powerhouses such as William Floyd and Ward Melville would be tough, but the proposed South Fork team would have likely been seeded in such a position where it wouldn’t have to play those teams.
East Hampton plans to play this season, by itself, in Division IV, Vasile-Cozzo said, which means giving up postseason eligibility since it is technically a Division III team based on enrollment. For various reasons, such as player safety and realistic ability, Vasile-Cozzo said he is comfortable with the team playing in Division IV. East Hampton has not had its own varsity team since 2016, but it did have a junior varsity team last season that was somewhat successful. Vasile-Cozzo said that many of those JV players were some of the 34 that showed up to an after-school meeting at the high school’s cafeteria on February 5, so numbers, at the moment, are looking good to field both a varsity and JV this fall.
“I definitely know we’ll have one,” he said. “I’m hopeful to have both.”
Vasile-Cozzo said that another option has emerged recently, eight vs. eight football, as opposed to the traditional 11v11. An article by upstate newspaper Rochester Democrat and Chronicle—which covers an area that has schools that play eight v. eight football that are sanctioned by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association—said that football with less than 11 players on each side is played in at least 30 states and in other countries. NYSPHSAA-sanctioned schools returned to that list in 2017 when the state brought back eight-player football after more than 30 years.
Teams playing eight v. eight football must have a minimum of 12 players on the roster to be allowed to play games, four less than that of the traditional game. An offense must have three linemen, and five offensive players must line up on the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball, instead of the seven required in the 11-man game.
Vasile-Cozzo said that six sections upstate offer eight v. eight football, and that Section VIII, or Nassau County, is looking to join relatively soon. Vasile-Cozzo said that East Hampton could have its own eight v. eight squad as soon as 2020. Phillips said that it’s also an option for Southampton if numbers continue to decline.
“I’m hoping to have conversations with Nassau County so that we can have a playoff, and that’s a huge opportunity,” Vasile-Cozzo said. “It’s real football. It’s thriving in many areas throughout the country so we’re hopeful to go to the table in 2020 and have that option. I’m really determined to bridge the gap next fall. I think it’ll be better for us to sustain a program and it’ll alleviate a lot of the issues.”