18 Show Up For First Day Of Practice In Frewsburg
With the finishing touches being put on a new press box and bleachers at the football field in the background, the Frewsburg Bears opened football practice Monday morning with just 18 varsity players.
The low number was not entirely unexpected as the program has been bracing for the possibility for several months now, but with the turnout now a reality, the district may have to reconsider the team’s direction for the upcoming season.
“As a school we had talked about seeing the process through the summer and waiting until this first day of camp to see if we have enough kids to participate,” Coach Terry Gray said after practice. “Friday we made a bunch of phone calls to kids that had signed up somewhere throughout the year and this is it.”
After sign-ups throughout the winter and spring resulted in around 21 or 22 players expected for the 2017 season, Frewsburg and Randolph began discussions about a possible football merger for the upcoming season. Eventually, Randolph applied to Section VI for the merger, but the request was denied because section officials said it came far too late after the Nov. 30, 2016 deadline for the upcoming season.
At the time, the Frewsburg administration — including Superintendent Shelly O’Boyle and Principal Bill Caldwell — held meetings with players and their parents to discuss any possible options and outcomes for the upcoming season.
As the merger with Randolph was denied at that time, it seemed the only viable option was to go into this fall trying to field a team with just Frewsburg players. New York state regulations require at least 16 eligible players to field a varsity team, meaning at this time Frewsburg will go into the season with just two more players than that limit.
“This is challenging. We saw it coming. The numbers have been going down slowly the last couple of years. We spent our year recruiting and trying to get kids out here,” Gray said. “Our summer conditioning and summer workouts were three, four or five kids. Usually there are 23, 24 or 25 kids. Right now it feels like survival.”
Gray acknowledged that two of the 18 players have never played football and one was going to be playing soccer and football. Another of the 18 is a freshman transfer from Southwestern, the only freshman Gray plans to call up to the varsity squad.
“Two of them are brand-new football players, never played before,” Gray said. “We’ve got to make sure they are safe. Do they know how to tackle? We won’t know any of that for a whole week. Do they know anything about football, that we can safely put them on the field and be able to participate? It’s not about winning. It’s about safety, survival and getting all the benefits of playing sports that you are supposed to get at the high school level.”
The Bears carried a roster of 27 players a season ago, when they finished with a 2-7 record. Of those 27, eight were seniors so the writing was already on the wall. Despite their record, three of the seniors were named to the New York State Sportswriters Association’s Class D All-State team. Cole Gregory was a first-team offensive lineman, Cordell O’Brien was a second-team wide receiver and Caleb Caldwell was an honorable-mention wide receiver. Also, six of the eight seniors listed offensive line as one of their positions, leaving Gray and his staff in quite a bind this year.
“Legitimately, we have four linemen,” Gray said. “That number is very close to not having a program.”
Seven juniors returned as seniors this season, including honorable-mention all-state quarterback Trent Gray, Coach Gray’s oldest son. Also back are Tyler Marchincin, Mark Mammoser, Tim Wright, Evan Norton, Bryce Gibbons and Nik Sanfilippo.
“No. 1, it’s always about the program. I tell the kids the program is bigger than me, bigger than any one of them and bigger than anybody who has ever played here,” Gray said. “No. 2 is our seniors. You want to see them put in all this time and all these years to a program that is then able to give them the sendoff that they deserve. I’m not sure that we are going to be able to do that.”
A few years ago, Pine Valley showed up to its first day of practice in the fall with low numbers and Section VI allowed its program to be absorbed by Gowanda immediately, but it remains to be seen if that will be an option for the Bears this fall.
If they do remain healthy enough to start the season, it may come down to a week-to-week decision as to whether or not they are able to take the field.
“I began my coaching career in Randolph and the first year I was there, Frewsburg had to forfeit a game to us somewhere in the middle of the year because of injuries,” Gray said. “Since we took over the number has been as high as 60, but slowly dwindling. … It’s kind of sad.
“The merger process has been three years in the making. The kids are exhausted of hearing about it and wondering what their fate will be,” Gray added. “At the beginning of the summer we just kind of picked up a little saying. We are here for each other, whatever that is, until we can’t be.”
As practice closed Monday, the seniors led their team in a chant of “We’re all we’ve got, we’re all we need.” Eighteen student-athletes pulling in the same direction, just in hopes of being able to play for each other.