Varsity Football a No-Go

Relatively few players have been showing up for the summer workouts

The on-again, off-again East Hampton football program is on again, Joe McKee, the varsity coach, said in a conversation Friday at The Star, but only at the junior varsity level.

He had hoped to field a varsity team this year — there wasn’t one last fall — but because relatively few players have been showing up for the three-night-a-week summer workouts, he was persuaded this past week, he said, to abandon plans for a varsity again.

Last winter, about two dozen showed up at an informational meeting he held at the high school cafeteria, a number that included nine juniors, seven sophomores, and eight freshmen, but didn’t include any eighth graders, who are to be freshmen this fall. 

“We’ve got 24 at the moment, but only 10 on average have been turning out for the workouts with Lorenzo Rodriguez and my brother Kelly, and sometimes it’s not even 10. You say beach and work may be reasons. It’s not the beach because the workouts don’t begin until 6. I don’t know what it is. It’s been frustrating, I’ll tell you, very frustrating.”

It wasn’t just East Hampton, McKee said. The football programs at other East End schools have also been struggling numbers-wise, though of its opponents in Division IV — the county’s smallest-enrollment one, which Section IX allowed East Hampton to join even though its enrollment would normally place it in Division III — only East Hampton, McKee said, lacks a varsity at the moment.

“If we were to have a varsity,” he added, “we’d be making sophomores and freshmen play at that level, so, given the lack of experience, I figured that it would be in our best interest to go with a jayvee only.”

McKee is about to enter his fourth year as the head football coach here. A jettisoned program in 2014 had persuaded him to try to turn it around.

The 2015 team, whose star was Brandon Johnson, a collegiate and developmental league rugby player now, went 2-6, though McKee said at the time that “we could very well have ended the regular season at 4-4, maybe even 5-3.”

The 2016 team went 1-7, but was competitive despite injuries that reduced its numbers from 29 to 20, and it went out on a high note, upsetting playoff-bound Bayport-Blue Point 36-21. 

The plug was pulled again last summer, again because of a lack of numbers. There was talk then of combining with Southampton, but East Hampton’s historical rival reportedly nixed the idea because Bonac’s added enrollment would have kicked it up from Division IV to III, “the black-and-blue division.”

“Since I’ve taken over,” McKee said, in reviewing the situation, “we were up and going for the first two years, and then in the third year the walls came tumbling down. As I say, it’s been frustrating.”

Asked what it was he loved about football, the coach, who is in East Hampton’s Hall of Fame, said, “It’s the biggest team sport there is. As you say, you’ve got to do your job, help your teammates. . . . I loved competing and the friendships I made.”

Did he have a quarterback? “Yes, we do, a lefty from Montauk, Topher Cullen. He’ll be a sophomore this coming fall. He played in junior high and he’s been showing up at all of the practices. We’ve got a big kid too, Nick LaValle, who’s been at every single workout. Nick Wyche, who’s also a strong kid, has been coming too. Those two will be juniors. That’s about all I want to say about players for the moment.”

The first official practice session is to be on Aug. 14 at 6 p.m., with physicals to be given at the high school on Aug. 6 and 7 from 4 to 7 p.m.

The minimum to field a team, varsity or jayvee, is 16. McKee will have to wait until then for the final answer, though, as aforesaid, the plan at the moment is to have a junior varsity team. Regarding whether to fish or cut bait, “We’ll know in the first week,” he said.

Games are to be played on Monday afternoons, by and large, with Hampton Bays, Bayport-Blue Point, Wyandanch, Port Jefferson, Mount Sinai, Greenport, Center Moriches, and Southampton, the same opponents the varsity would have faced.

McKee is to be assisted by Rodriguez, who has been a volunteer in the past, and by his brother Kelly.

Ed McGintee, who had been one of his assistants, “is going to step back for a bit . . . maybe he’ll volunteer. . . . Lorenzo really deserves to be a full-time assistant. He’s put in a tremendous amount of time, gone above and beyond. He’s put in so much work in the off-season with these guys.”

Dave Fioriello will continue to coach the East Hampton Middle School’s seventh and eighth-grade team, though there has been a steep drop-off in junior high numbers too. “The middle school numbers have gone from the 60s to the 50s to the 40s to the 30s to 20, the number they had last year,” McKee said.

Flag football, by contrast, for kindergarten through sixth-grade boys and girls, apparently continues to be a strong draw.

“We had 60 to 70 kids the first year and 120 last year,” the coach said. “It begins the first week of school. Practices will be Mondays and Wednesdays with games on Friday nights under the lights at Herrick Park. With that being said, we are looking for volunteers to help out as coaches and assistant coaches. They can email me at joemowseh@hotmail.com.”