Southington’s Steve Risser, the athletic director at Windsor High School, shook his head as he latched the final padlock to the field at Jack O’Brien Stadium about 45 minutes after his Warriors dominated Maloney 36-0 in the Class L quarterfinals.
Risser, a native of Pennsylvania, was stunned by fans’ minimal response.
The weather was accommodating, temps in the mid-40s and wind chill a non-factor. Considerable criticism has emanated from fans about CIAC ticket prices, but in reality $10 for adults and $5 for senior citizens/students isn’t going to break the bank.
Perhaps some complacency has set in. Windsor, under coach Rob Fleeting and buttressed by a productive youth program, is in the playoffs for the fourth straight year and for the sixth time in the last seven.
Perhaps some felt that Windsor’s 28-0 conquest of the Spartans on opening night was testimony enough as to what was going to transpire. Did potential ticket-buyers think they still had the semifinals and maybe the finals looming?
Risser said he hadn’t perused the paperwork from his ticket sales crew yet, which he must do for CIAC remittance, so he didn’t have an attendance figure. He was doubtful the number reached 500. Perhaps 350 is a good estimate. Also missing was the pageantry of a halftime band or dance performance.
Risser spoke of the enormity of football playoff games in his home state. He told stories of friends who have attended games in Ohio, Texas and down south with reports of enthusiastic standing-room-only crowds. He spoke of coaches paid in the $100,000-per-year neighborhood who laughed when asked if their contracts included teaching in the classroom, too.
The bottom line is that football is not a priority in Connecticut, a state that cannot come close to generating enough Division I talent to serve as a core for a state university whose program is closer to being second tier than one striving for a D1 playoff slot.
Even when state high schools uncommonly do produce players with an NFL future, they aren’t going to UConn. The late Aaron Hernandez (Bristol Central) and Jordan Reed (New London) went to Florida. Mike Golic Jr. (Northwest Catholic) followed his father’s legacy at Notre Dame. Offensive lineman John Sullivan (Greenwich), now with the Rams after nine seasons with the Vikings, also went to South Bend. Former Xavier star Amari Spievey used Iowa as a launching pad to become a third-round pick in the NFL and the Steelers’ Tyler Matakevich (St. Joseph-Trumbull) matriculated at Temple.
Most recently, two-time All-State linebacker Ben Mason (Newtown) is now a fullback at Michigan. Ex-New London running back A.J. Dillon Tuesday was named the ACC Rookie of the Year … for Boston College. More locally, Tarik Black of Hamden eschewed the public school football scene by going to Cheshire Academy. He and Mason are teammates in Ann Arbor.
Look for that trend to continue like a tsunami follows an undersea earthquake.
Just the fact that we can count current NFL players from Connecticut high schools on one hand speaks to what we have here and perhaps the fans are responding in kind.
Facts show that the current format devised by the CIAC football committee and engaged for 2015 has become a travesty.
Of the 48 quarterfinal games played over the last three years, just two each year – 12.5 percent of all games played – have been one-possession games on the final drive, and two of those were eight-point deficits. Only three games were decided by a field goal or less – Newtown’s 21-20 win over Glastonbury in 2015; New Canaan 31-28 conquest of Masuk in 2016; SMSA’s 32-29 win over the Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial co-op Tuesday.
The average margin of victory in those 48 games is more than four touchdowns, or 24.4 points per contest. This year’s results, highlighted by St. Joseph’s 62-0 pasting of O’Brien Tech in Class S, show an average margin of 24.6 points.
Is there any wonder why people beyond family and friends prefer to go holiday shopping?
Now that I’ve pointed out the problem, I have at least a partial answer. The credit for this idea goes to former Bloomfield and New Britain mentor Jack Cochran, probably the best and certainly the most embattled coach in state history.
Cochran’s notion that he conveyed to me about 15 years ago was to establish a “Super Division.”
The elite teams around the state that wish to compete for a true state championship enroll in a division of choice above the Class LL/L/M/S tier before the start of the season. They do so at no risk of failing to make the playoffs if they win their share of regular-season games.
The top eight teams would gain Super Division qualification. Any team dropping below the top eight would be reclassified in the division they were originally assigned, LL, L, M or S.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Maloney coach Kevin Frederick, knowing he has an outstanding team returning next year, gains consensus from school officials that the Spartans can enlist in the Super Division. If the Spartans end up ninth and out of Super Division consideration, they automatically revert back to their CIAC-designated division and could qualify to vie for a Class L title.
The establishment of a Super Division does more than just assure state football fans that they will have an indisputable champion not subject to the whims of pollsters. Skimming off the eight best teams in the state would create better balance among the four present divisions.
But that alone will not completely solve this dilemma.
Talk about travesties, consider the Class M field for Tuesday’s farce. With all due respect to Sheehan, which unquestionably deserved a playoff berth and whose program architects and players should be commended for their achievements, the field was a joke.
I don’t see any one of those eight teams as being among the top 20 in the state.
Berlin, one of the semifinalists, was trounced by New Britain in its final regular-season game. Semifinalist Joel Barlow beat just one team with more than four wins. SMSA’s “signature” win came against the Winsted co-op of Gilbert/Northwestern Regional (5-5).
Then there’s Class S.
The top of the field was awesome with Ansonia, St. Joseph and Rocky Hill, all of which I voted for among the top 15 in the sportswriters’ poll after the dust settled on Thanksgiving.
While I don’t see the NVL as being among the state’s top four leagues (FCIAC, SCC, CCC, SWC), Seymour proved an interesting foe for the Chargers. Hey, the 35-point margin of victory made it one of Ansonia’s closer games and the towns do sit side by side.
Valley Regional/Old Lyme vs. Rocky Hill was a competitive game (34-21, Terriers), but here’s where that tech school issue pops up again. It’s one I visited when Wilcox Tech fell hard to Wilton in boys soccer and my case is bolstered by O’Brien Tech’s football experience. Although Bullard-Havens Tech of Bridgeport put up a fight against the Stafford/East Windsor/Somers co-op (20-12), none of the above fall into the competitive category when stacked up against the likes of Ansonia, St. Joe’s and Rocky Hill. They simply don’t belong together in a championship forum.
The reasoning behind having 32 teams qualify for the football playoffs is one of participation. While participation is an important ingredient in having scholastic sports serve as a vibrant part of a school’s curriculum, fan interest (vis-a-vis dollars) requires competitive games.
So the grandstands at Windsor were painfully empty. I don’t have similar data on the other quarterfinals, but if attendance by and large left a lot to be desired, the football committee should take into conisderation that the people have spoken.