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As high school football participation numbers decline, many programs in Connecticut have looked to form co-ops

The Hartford Courant — By Shawn McFarland The Hartford Courant

Sept. 10-- HARTFORD, Conn.-As high school football participation numbers continue to decline in Connecticut and individual school districts struggle to field teams on their own, more schools are choosing to join forces with others in the form of cooperative teams, or co-ops.

Football has seen participation decline steadily since peaking in the last 20 years at 10,815 players in the 2009-10 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Last year, 9,059 students participated in Connecticut, the lowest point in the last 20 years.

The decrease in participation has made it difficult to field deep rosters for some of the state's smaller communities, with many schools choosing to join forces with other schools in similar positions in order to keep their programs alive. Twenty-one co-op teams, composed of 54 schools in the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, will take the field this fall, with Granby/Canton and Trinity/Wright Tech the latest joint programs to form.

"I do think it is a trend," Canton athletic director Kim Church said. "I think a lot more schools will be doing this as well."

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When Church and her administration opted to form a co-op football program with Granby, she prioritized both the present and the future.

Canton's roster consisted of just 28 players in 2018, when the Warriors went 1-9-barely over the CIAC's allowed minimum. With the smaller roster, player safety became a focus for Church. Many student-athletes were playing both offense and defense, which could lead to a heightened risk of injury.

Additionally, thin rosters often lead to underclassmen seeing the field earlier than they should. Often, they are not physically prepared for varsity football, where facing stronger and more experienced players could result in harm.

Church also looked down the road and saw that future growth was also unlikely.

She went age group by age group at the youth football level. As the ages dropped, so did the participation numbers, to the point where she feared there would only be a handful of players trying out for the football team as freshmen in the coming years.

"Just knowing that was the case in the future, we wanted to try and act now," Church said.

Canton's merger with Granby has already proved beneficial for both sides. For Granby, it gives an emerging playoff contender added depth and one of its largest rosters in years. It also gives Canton students the option of playing football with the long-term hope that the next generation may have more interest in the sport.

"That was the whole ideal situation behind going into a co-op," Church said. "Hey, we don't have the numbers to be safe and successful and have a consistent program right now. Let's join Granby, and hopefully kids see the consistency and how awesome this is going to be. They can really build off of that.

"We would definitely love to have our numbers back up so we could be a team on our own."

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Brian Mazzone understands that some look down on co-op programs. The head coach of a successful Stafford/Somers/East Windsor team, he says that some view co-op programs as either a collection of teams that couldn't compete on their own, or one team looking to absorb other teams to make itself stronger.

"Everyone when they get to the playoffs, you want to play a tech school or you want to play a co-op," Mazzone said. "I think people certainly look down on it. And that's fine. I don't mind that. People can look down on anything they want."

Co-op teams have appeared in the state playoffs 16 times in the past five years, with Valley Regional/Old Lyme and Capital Prep/Achievement First both winning state titles in 2014 when the tournament expanded to eight teams.

There has been a consistent rise in talent and success among the co-ops over the years, with the likes of Stafford/Somers/East Windsor, SMSA/Classical/University, Cromwell/Portland and Valley Regional/Old Lyme winning playoff games, stringing together winning seasons and sending players to all levels of college football.

"You can make it work," Mazzone said. "There can be a benefit for your team."

Of course, making it work doesn't come easy. That's been Mazzone's warning to those looking to form a co-op. On paper, the idea of joining forces with another program to create a deeper, stronger team sounds appealing. But, as Mazzone said, he now reports to three athletic directors, coordinates bus schedules for three schools and practices on as many as six different fields in one season-all while teaching at Enfield High.

The biggest obstacle is arranging his players. The East Windsor students often have to drive as far as 30 minutes after school to get to practice. The Somers representatives don't have much shorter of a trip either. But prospective players take notice of that kind of dedication.

"We have had kids from the Somers program and the East Windsor program raise the bar, and when they raise the bar, other people raise the bar," Mazzone said. "We had a kid one year at Somers who was like, 'I'm coming every day after school.' So he came. Other Somers kids came."

Mazzone has seen numbers rise thanks to co-op programs. When he returned to the Ellington co-op in 2009, the team had roughly 35 players. In 2011, the program had 60. Now in Stafford, he's seen a bigger turnout from East Windsor and Somers this season compared to years past.

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When Jeff Redman took over the Avon varsity football program before last season, he had 19 players.

"You want to talk about a challenge," Redman said. "You can't even run anything against anybody."

The challenges presented themselves early. Redman wouldn't allow any contact during practice, fearing an injury would deplete an already slimmed down lineup. The Falcons led at halftime of their first two regular-season games against East Catholic and Tolland, but fell apart in the second half as players cramped up.

"We just couldn't last," Redman said. "And then you've got to play Bloomfield and Berlin and all those guys, and you're just like, 'Let's just survive the game.' "

When senior offensive tackle Henry Schrecenghost, who now plays for Bryant, missed three games with an injury, the team crumbled.

"When you lose a stud, it hurts," Redman said. "One injury can kill your program, especially with that many."

Redman left the door open throughout the season, and players of all ages joined as the weeks rolled along, the roster creeping up toward 30 players by the end of the season. He helped establish a junior varsity program, which turned out to be successful, though he was still wary of calling younger kids up to the varsity level, even as the Falcons struggled to field a deep roster.

"When you've got a kid that's 50 pounds heavier than you and has more experience, more speed and more strength, it puts kids in a dangerous situation," Redman said. "My main fear was not 'How many games am I going to win this year?' I just wanted to survive without losing kids to injury."

Avon's program, freshmen through varsity, stands at 62 players for this season. The Falcons wanted to form a co-op with Canton, though their roster-by virtue of what Redman called a strong senior class, and overall love for football-exceeded the maximum amount of players allowable for one school in a co-op. Per the CIAC, a team can have no more than 32 players if submitting a roster of ninth through 12th graders, and no more than 25 players if submitting a roster with 10th through 12th graders.

With participation numbers dropping across the board, there's no telling whether Avon's program will continue to grow. Redman is in favor of a co-op, and says if the participation decline continues, more teams will opt to join together.

"I think that it's got its benefits," Redman said. "We're coming to a phase right now in a participation of football where it's going to be more common."

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