Tonawanda News — During a time of dwindling numbers and budget cuts across Western New York, hearing a high school sports program is cutting anything can be cause for concern.
That’s not the case out in Wilson, though, where the athletic department has cut its junior varsity football team in favor of a modified squad.
Athletic Director Jeff Roth made the decision official during the spring after discussing potential roster numbers with varsity head coach Bill Atlas and assistant Brian Baker, who will serve as head coach of the modified team. Roth said the change has increased numbers throughout the program.
“I have a very good staff of football coaches, and they came to me and presented the case,” Roth said. “They didn’t think we’d have enough (players) to field a JV team, which wouldn’t only hurt us but would hurt everybody we were supposed to play. At end of the day, they were right, and we didn’t have the numbers.
“What they knew was that we had a bunch of middle school athletes that weren’t going to qualify to play JV but were itching to play.”
Typically, the majority of varsity players come from grades 11-12, with JV teams made up of ninth and 10th graders. As a Class C school with limited numbers, Wilson has fielded JV teams made up primarily of eighth graders over the past few years. Those teams had struggled against older competition, compiling a 1-15 record over the last two seasons.
After graduating 15 seniors from last year’s varsity team, Atlas had projected 2013 varsity and JV numbers of 20 and 18 players, respectively, which could’ve been trouble if injuries hit either squad. Baker, who teaches at the middle school, worked to gauge interest of younger players, and the new format could increase overall numbers in the program by 15-20 players, according to medical clearance numbers provided to Roth by the district’s nursing staff.
“Those guys really know what they’re doing,” Roth said. “Baker knew the kids were going to come out. He told me there was going to be a huge group of kids, and it looks like he’s going to be right on the money.”
Most importantly, Roth said no interested players will be left out under the new format. Eligible projected JV players will play with the modified team while others will simply be moved up to varsity, increasing numbers on both teams.
Without the need to fill a JV roster, Atlas expects to have a varsity roster of around 30 players, with an additional 30-35 playing modified.
“The past three days have been the best three days of practice in my time here,” said Atlas, who has been coaching since 2000. “In the past, if we were running drills with our linemen, we’d wouldn’t have enough guys to do anything else. My defensive coordinator used to have to play free safety in (11-on-11) drills because I didn’t have the numbers.
“Now, if I have offensively linemen and running backs working on the run game on side, I’ve got 14 guys on the other side that I can run drills with.”
This isn’t the first time Wilson has dropped its JV program according to Atlas, who said the program was dropped in the 1990s. The change is not permanent and will be evaluated on a year-to-year basis.
“In future years, it may be where the bubble of kids is at the ninth- and 10th-grade level, and we mad need the JV team rather than modified,” Roth said.
The increased numbers may also allow Wilson to keep a solo varsity team for the foreseeable future, avoiding the trend of small Section VI schools combining teams to combat dropping numbers. Roth said a combined team will remain an option if numbers drop again in the future, but for now it wasn’t something he would need to consider.
“I think this will really help grow our football program,” he said. “This is my fourth year, and this is by far the most kids who have been participating in football.”
The Lakemen opened varsity practice Monday, with modified gatherings starting today. The varsity team will take part in a seven-team scrimmage at Medina on Aug. 31 before opening its season at 7 p.m. Sept. 6 at Akron.Follow Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.