Voices Of Experience

As Bemus Point and Chautauqua Lake school districts consider a merger of their football programs, some area schools are off and running with combined sports teams.

During a recent public meeting held at Maple Grove Jr.-Sr. High School, community members expressed concern over what a merger with Chautauqua Lake’s football team would mean for their football program.

Some concerns expressed: an extra cost for travel to practices and games at CLCS, the loss of two home games and subsequent community interaction, losing the Red Dragon identity, and a loss of study and practice time for the players on both teams due to an alternating practice schedule.

By the end of the meeting, a new suggestion had been made – one in which the two football teams would combine, and Maple Grove would allow CLCS players to play on its team and at its facilities. The nature of this combined team would be similar to that of the Sherman-Ripley football program, in which Ripley players play at Sherman’s facilities, and the Ripley name was added to Sherman’s jerseys.

Kaine Kelly, superintendent of Sherman Central School, and Ty Harper, assistant coach of the Sherman-Ripley Wildcats football team, are both supportive of the combination.

“At the time the merger took place, Sherman and Ripley were both in a position where football was dead,” said Kelly. “We got together, and Ripley buses their kids over daily to play. We start practice late to accommodate them, and we’ve made great efforts to make them feel welcome as a part of our program and that they’re valued. I think early on it was a little rocky, but since then, things have really smoothed out, and everybody works very hard to make sure that it works.”

He added: “We’ve experienced some good success with our football program, and, in our own way, we’re showing some great strides. And a lot of that is due, in part, to our relationship (with Ripley).”

In terms of study time, Kelly said that coaches have sometimes initiated after-school study halls for the Sherman players while they wait for the Ripley players to arrive.

“We’re lucky to have the Ripley kids come over here,” said Harper. “It’s really helped us in numbers, especially at the JV level. It’s almost an aid to us (to have a delayed practice) because it gives everybody a little more time to go home and get some equipment if they need to. It hasn’t really affected us in terms of efficiency in practice. I don’t think it’s hurt us at all. (The merger) has been a really positive experience for us. Both communities have come together, and we’ve seen nothing but good things.”

According to Jake Hitchcock, athletic director at Westfield Academy and Central Schools, combined sports can have both positive and negative aspects. Westfield’s wrestling team, which is combined with the Chautauqua Lake and Ripley districts, is based entirely at Ripley’s facilities and has experienced the effects of both aspects.

“Wrestling was one of our programs that was fairly expensive to run as far as cost per player,” said Hitchcock. “Our options were to cut the program entirely or to send it to another school. Overall, the program is very successful, and, with us being combined with Ripley, we’re not having to forfeit matches like we used to.”

“Also, our kids have been able to get involved in a (wrestling) program that was equal to, if not a step up, from ours,” continued Hitchcock.

He added: “One disadvantage is that the kids have to get their own transportation. We don’t provide it for any of our away sports. If there’s already a bus going, maybe for BOCES, the kids can hitch a ride, but they’ll have to get a ride back. Another issue that comes up is academic intelligibility because each school has their own policy. We have to keep an updated list of ineligible kids every couple weeks and coordinate that with the other schools.”

In regard to lost study time, Hitchcock said that kids should be taking advantage of the time they are on school buses. He explained that the real issue at Westfield comes from kids having to leave school early to attend an away match.

“In the big picture, you’re going to lose a couple minutes of class time,” he said. “But when your only option is to merge or cancel (a program), kids are definitely glad to have the opportunity to participate.”

The combined sports method is becoming more commonplace throughout the area as the alternative is cancellation due to low enrollment numbers.

Jamestown Public Schools has adopted this method on a smaller scale. For the 2012-13 school year only, the JPS Board of Education approved the establishment of alpine skiing as a sport. The district did so in order to allow Sophie Sellstrom, a student athlete at JHS, the opportunity to participate interscholastically with the Ellicottville Central School District’s alpine skiing team in a “combined school” scenario.