Last weekend, on a pleasant September Saturday, Port Washington took the field for the annual Pride in Port homecoming game. There had already been a parade and carnival, and local families from across the peninsula had gathered at Paul D. Schreiber High School to watch.
But the players did not wear helmets or shoulder pads. There were no touchdowns or big hits. There was no football at all, because the homecoming football game had been canceled. Instead, the Vikings varsity boys soccer team took the field to play rival Baldwin in what the rest of the world knows as “football.”
The cancellation of the homecoming game was the most recent setback for a football program that has had to fight to survive.
“I think there are a variety of issues affecting football across [Long Island], and we’re no different,” said Stephanie Joannon, athletic director for the Port Washington school district.
It is true the football has seen a drop-off in participation in high schools around the country. Participation has decreased nationwide by 3 percent in each of the past two years. Meanwhile, participation increased for soccer, which saw the largest increase in participation among the 10 most popular high school sports.
“There’s the fear of injuries, the nature of the sport, the time commitment, all that has hurt participation,” Joannon said.
It was safety concerns that almost led to the end of Port Washington football.
After rejoining Conference I in 2014 following two seasons in a developmental league, the team went 2-6 and was outscored 225-108. The following season, the Vikings went 1-7 and were outscored 282-46. Other teams in the conference had higher football participation and stronger, faster players.
As participation lagged, the Vikings weren’t just getting crushed on the scoreboard; the players were getting crushed on the field as well. Several student athletes were suspected of receiving concussions and a few had to go to the emergency room. As the team struggled, participation declined, and Port Washington had one of the smallest teams despite being a mid-sized school for the conference.
After the 2015 season, Joannon laid out the options: switch leagues, cut the program down to just junior varsity, or eliminate it entirely.
“The response was overwhelmingly unanimous not to cut the program,” Joannon said. “The parents and players wanted to preserve football.”
Last season, Port Washington cobbled together a schedule of schools from the Lower Hudson Valley and Nassau, a process that Joannon described as “labor intensive.” Before the 2017 season, Port Washington joined the Hudson Valley League, whose other schools are in Westchester County.
“It’s a viable, recognized league, so we’re able to compete for a championship and play in the playoffs,” Joannon said.
The Hudson Valley League consists of eight smaller teams, some of which are barely able to field a football squad. The Port Washington homecoming game was canceled because the opponent, Yonkers High School, forfeited the game. It was the school’s second straight forfeiture, which led to the cancellation of the rest of the team’s 2017 season.
The cancellation of the football game was a blemish on what has been a positive year for the Vikings so far. Joannon said 65 boys came out for the football team this year, up from 52 last year. And the team is off to 3-0 start, its best since 2013. On Saturday the Vikings will take on the Gorton Wolves, who haven’t lost a game in over three years.
“[Head coach Adam] Hovorka has done a wonderful job,” Joannon said. “He has a sound philosophy … he has assembled a solid coaching staff that can bring out football players to succeed.”
Moving to the Hudson Valley League was a matter of survival, Joannon said. If the team had not made the move, the football program likely would not have been able to field a team. But Joannon added that the move was not a permanent one.
“Our goal is to get back [to Conference I],” she said. “We just want to get more students playing football so that we will have the depth to compete in conference.”