ROCKPORT — On Thursday, Sept. 24, Camden Hills Regional High School administrators made a stunning announcement that the school had canceled the remainder of the football season. Some have since applauded that decision, others are frustrated. In the end, if it is to be a varsity sport at Camden Hills, football must earn its way back.
According to CHRHS Athletic Director Steve Alex, the pivotal meeting took place Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 23, and was attended by Principal Nick Ithomitis, Five Town CSD Superintendent Maria Libby, and Alex. Following a discussion, they made the decision to stop the program in mid-season, and the following day they circulated a press release.
School administrators cited low participation in the program, and the safety of the players, as reasons for terminating the program.
The status of the football program has been under review since August, when the players first assembled, and administrators paid close attention to it.
“We have been following this all season,” said Alex. “We always had concerns based on the numbers. I would try to keep my boss, Dr. Ithomitis, informed, and he would keep his boss, Ms. Libby, informed. We have been watching all season to make sure we didn’t miss anything with the numbers.”
There was no policy cited to make this decision. It was based on the information they had, which included the number of players and their experience. Alex said it was common sense to protect the students.
Four players had been hurt in a game against Bucksport on Saturday, Sept. 20, raising even more concerns.
After that game, two players went to the hospital, one in an ambulance. The other player was taken to the hospital later that night by his parents.
That meant four players were to be out for at least a week, if not longer. And, two of those injuries were concussions, one from the game and one from on off-field incident a few days prior.
Even if the team could play its next scheduled game against an Ellsworth team, would the players be back in time for a game against powerhouse Maine Central Institute? That team is undefeated and had been crushing their opponents.
Camden Hills administrators did not want to take more risks.
Head football coach Thad Chilton, however, has a different perspective. He had not been directly involved in the decision to halt the season.
“I felt that the unavailability of four starters this Saturday [Sept. 26] would not have compromised our ability to be competitive and play safely against Ellsworth-Sumner,” said Chilton. “I know Coach Crawford as a quality coach and a good man, having coached alongside him at the NFL High School Player Development Camps in Ellsworth. We both were looking forward to the game. I did, however, agree that we could not have been competitive with MCI if our players did not return to play the next week as scheduled. I understand the administrators' concerns, but I am a football coach and in football, we never give up.”
Alex said the Chilton did a good job of keeping him informed about injuries, the players’ health, as well as who was eligible and who was not.
But, he said: “After coach sent out the status report we did all the math and it didn’t look safe to us. In good consciousness, we said no, we can’t play a game like this. Some of the key players were injured so the team does have a lot of younger kids and just because you wear the uniform it doesn’t mean you can go into a varsity game and play both sides of the line for a long period of time, so we looked at the risk factor for those kids.”
With that information, the administration felt another voice, the team’s coach, did not need to be at the meeting.
“It was an administrative decision,” said Alex. “Because of that, Thad was not brought into it. It was at our level [administrative]. Thad has provided excellent resources that I brought with me to discuss with my boss and his boss.”
Chilton said that if he had been involved, the same decision may have been made, but being the coach, he might have been able to calm some of the frustration.
“I think, had I been involved in the decisionmaking process, we might have been able to avoid some misunderstandings and hurt feelings,” he said. “These kids have worked hard and have a strong commitment to football. To have their season cut short in such a seemingly abrupt fashion was painful for them. I might have been able to head off some of the resulting hard feelings if I had been more involved in the process.”
Five Town Football, which is the feeder program for middle school and ultimately, the high school, had this to say about the decision: "As the feeder program for the CHRHS Football Program, Five Town Football is obviously disappointed in the administration's decision to cancel the high school's 2015 season,” said FTF president Joe Russillo. “While safety is of paramount importance to both of our programs, it's still unclear why exactly this decision was made, and why Coach Chilton was not part of the decisionmaking process. No matter what happens at CHRHS, FTF will continue to provide a safe, fun, family-oriented environment where boys and girls can learn competition and sportsmanship through football, for this season and many seasons to come."
A shrinking team, disappointed players
Last week, Chilton and Alex went through the roster to see who was injured and who was available to play.
When asked last week, neither Chilton nor Alex provided a clear answer as to how many players were left to field.
But this is known: Camden Hills Regional High School Varsity Football had started the season in August with 28 players. Of those 28, 13 were freshmen and three were female. That meant, according to some, that 16 of the 28 players perhaps should not have been on the field for a varsity contest, given their body size and experience.
Camden Hills graduated 12 players last year, and this fall, there are 12 former players enrolled at school who chose not to play again this season.
The reasons are varied: Some didn’t like the coach, some were tired of losing, some just didn’t want to play. But that meant that 24 players from last year were not back this season. That left a sizable hole.
The season is over for the remaining players, who are upset and disappointed.
Administrators feel they made the right decision, and football is an extracurricular sport, not a core component of a high school education. But is football finished at Camden Hills?
No, said Alex. Whether there is a petition to play varsity, play just junior varsity, or return to being a club sport, the high school administration is is open to talking, provided there are enough players to sustain the program.
“A lot of the kids have been in my office very upset,” said Alex. “Some people of the press have mis-worded what happened. We terminated the remainder of the season; we understand there are going to be follow-up meeting and all for our status with the MPA, knowing worst-case scenario that there will be no varsity for two years. The administration doesn’t decide long term. That is the decision of the school board.”
As athletic director, Alex wants to see football back at some level.
And, Chilton wants a chance to finish what he has started.
“I would, and that is what I hope to be working toward in the coming weeks,” said Chilton. “There is no secret that this program needs a reboot. We have been public about that. We had hoped that our move down to Class D would be the proper methodology. While we were honored to join the Little Ten Conference and were proud to have competed in it, we did not expect to have the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the conference from 2014 on our 2015 schedule. Perhaps a more modest route back to competitive football is what was needed. Sometimes things happen for good reasons. Perhaps this is a wake-up call that we needed a more modest approach in our football comeback.”
Alex said he would welcome Chilton back, adding that he has done an excellent job thus far.
On Sept. 24, the administration held a meeting for the players and parents to explain their decision. Many people tried to make it about the future, but that was not the point of the meeting.
“That night was about our team and our parents,” said Alex. “We weren’t ready to handle the future at that point. This was to try and help our kids and parents understand.”
Alex said he anticipated that the administration would be trying to put a plan together to take to the school board for approval.
“We discussed the fallout from the Maine Principals’ Association,” said Alex. “We recognized the fact that a decision like this could be a two-year loss of MPA varsity membership status.”
According to the MPA policy, a school can petition to be reinstated after failing to complete a varsity schedule. That may or may not be the best avenue for the school to take in this sport.
“The good thing is that none of our kids are going to go home in an ambulance,” said Alex. “The kids at home are going to recover. We are going to regroup and see if we can find some fun football for the players for the rest of the season.”
He added: “If we get out here playing flag football every other day, bring a friend. We will not pad them up, put a helmet on them or tackle them, just come out and enjoy the game. We can get back to engaging younger people to see if they have an interest down the road.”
Five Town Football told Alex it had eight eighth graders playing this fall. Add them to the 13 freshmen this season, and there might be 21 undergrads who could play a solid JV schedule next fall.
This is not the first time that football has been eliminated as a Camden school sport.
Football was played at the former Camden High School until the mid to late 1930s. When World War II began, the school reportedly sold all the equipment and the sport was nonexistent in Camden schools until Five Town Football was formed. In 2006, the first Camden Hills Regional High School club team ran onto the field. In 2009, the team petitioned for and was granted varsity status at Camden Hills Regional High School.