The High School North and High School South football teams play each other in the above file photo.

The West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South football team held its year-end banquet the night before High School North held its own this year. The two programs could hold one together next year.

At its annual general membership meeting Dec. 4, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association—the body that governs interscholastic sports in the state—approved a rule change that would allow large schools who have programs that are struggling with attendance to enter a cooperative sports program.

It paves the way for North and South to play as a co-op in the future—an option that WW-P had been denied earlier this year after hoping to get approval for players from North to play on the Pirates football team.

“I had a feeling it was going to pass,” said North head coach Jeff Reilly. “A lot of good people put a lot of positive energy into it. I was happy to hear it passed. It’ll give kids an opportunity.”

WW-P will be sorting through its options as it plans for next year. The West Jersey Football League has already set up its divisions for next year and will be looking to put together the schedule shortly after the New Year.

Superintendent David Aderhold said that the district is examining the status of its football program and hopes to come to a conclusion within the next two weeks. The co-op option will only be used as a last resort, he indicated.

“If we believe we can safely offer two varsity football teams, we will continue to do so; fielding teams at High School South and at High School North does ensure a greater level of participation. Our decisions have always been grounded in ensuring safety and opportunity. WW-P will continue with these goals in mind as we study the matter.”

WW-P North is one of three programs statewide that had to cancel its varsity schedule this past fall due to concerns about player safety as a result of low participation numbers—the Knights only had three seniors.

The old NJSIAA rule disallowed Group III or larger schools to merge their programs (North is Group III and South is Group IV), and appeals by the district were denied all the way up to the state Department of Education commissioner’s office. With the co-op option off the table, North opted to play a junior varsity schedule.

Meanwhile, district officials helped work on the rule change that was passed by NJSIAA on Dec. 4, the same day as WW-P South’s year-end football banquet.

The proposal passed with three conditions for programs that want to co-op. They cannot play in a divisional title game or state playoffs; regardless of on-field outcome, their regular-season opponents will be given the win for playoff seeding purposes; and the necessity of a co-op must be revisited every two years.

High School North senior captains Jack Rome, Brian Murphy and Jude Batoon before the first game of the season at Allentown High School on Sept. 7, 2017. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Aderhold said the district is “pleased” with the NJSIAA decision, and praised the players on North for the way they handled this past season.

“Three High School North seniors showed tremendous character, dedication, and grace through a very difficult ordeal,” Aderhold said. “They were an inspiration to our younger student-athletes and to members of the school community. In the end, the skills these student-athletes learned and the leadership they demonstrated will serve them well in the future.”

He added that he is also “extremely proud” of the support that Reilly and the High School North football community lent to the football players. “Thanks also must be given to High School North cheerleaders, marching band, student government, and faculty members for embracing the team to ensure that an important aspect of high school culture continued in WW-P,” he said.

Meanwhile, High School South’s participation numbers weren’t high either, with just 11 seniors and 43 total players on its roster. The Pirates finished 1-8.

“We were OK,” said Pirates head coach Skip Edwards. “I’m the type of person who believes you should have more than one plan, especially in the case we were in this year. We were never in crisis mode. We always had someone ready to go in case one of the players went down. We had a couple sophomores step up to the plate for us this year and do a really nice job for us, we had a couple juniors that did not play last year that came out and did a nice job for us. It worked out where we were OK.”

Both North and South seem hopeful that they will not have to use the co-op proposal going forward, and are optimistic about their chances to field varsity teams next year, though the Knights only have three juniors who will be seniors.

“The program is at such an upbeat level,” Reilly said. “Usually you finish the season and there’s a little lull, and you try to get the kids in the weight room and geared back toward football. Right when it ended, the kids who are coming back were saying, ‘What can we do next?’”

Reilly counts 32 returning players and feels good about the starting point that WW-P North has. “Every single one of them are returning,” he said. “They all had a great experience. We’re pleased with where we are as a program.

“I’ve never seen such a reaction and response from kids that didn’t play football before about how much they liked playing for West Windsor North,” he added. “We had a lot of kids playing for the first time and they had a really positive experience and enjoyed it.”

Reilly also is anticipating help from the incoming freshman, many of whom have been playing for the West Windsor-Plainsboro Wildcats.

“It’ll be a good class,” Reilly said. “They had a lot of success at the Wildcat level. We have some good athletes and football players coming up, some good freshman coming out.”

‘The high school football season is year-round, and when you’re not quite sure and you’re not planning on solid ground, that’s hard.’

WW-P South is also counting on some Wildcat players to bolster its numbers. Edwards had his first sign-up session at the end of November and was encouraged by the response.

“I had 12 new players come in and sign up,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll keep all 12. If we’re fortunate to keep all 12, that will give us healthy numbers. That doesn’t even include the freshmen. It’s my understanding we have a big freshman class coming in next year. Hopefully that’s going to turn the corner for us and we’ll be able to start with a freshman program rather than have freshman dressing varsity.”

Edwards is hoping to drum up more interest for the Pirates. He will have multiple sign-up periods, and he will be looking for potential new players from winter and spring sports and when he’s supervising the weight room.

“Number wise, the last three to four years, we haven’t had great numbers, but we’ve played a varsity schedule every year,” Edwards said. “This is no different than every other year. I think we’re about ready to turn the corner with the big freshman class coming in. I’m hoping that our numbers are going to go up, and things are going to get better for us.”

This year, the Pirates program helped its young players gain experience with controlled scrimmages. It was a way to manage opportunities and get players into game situations where they could learn best.

“We had six JV games, and they were all close games,” Edwards said. “We ended up winning the last one. We had a lot of the players gain experience by running controlled JV games. Our kids felt good about themselves, and we gained a lot of experience that way.”

One of the highlights this year was the cross-district rivalry game, in which South held off North in an overtime thriller, 43-37. The Pirates got a touchdown from Max Bruno and two-point conversion from Anthony Taylor to tie the game in regulation. Taylor’s touchdown run in double overtime was the game-winner.

“It was an electrifying atmosphere,” Edwards said. “I felt that North was a pretty good football team. We ended up losing three players in the first quarter, which ended up being six positions, not to mention special teams. I lost my long snapper/fullback/middle linebacker, I lost my right guard/kicker/punter, and I lost my outside linebacker/starting flanker. But we plugged those holes in. That’s where the experience came in from earlier in the year from underclassmen, they stepped in, did a great job and it was an exciting game that night.”

Low numbers did give players more opportunities on both teams. The younger players benefited from gaining more experience than they might on bigger teams.

“The biggest impact we had from doing this is—we focused on all the kids—but we could put a lot of attention toward the kid that’s not experienced and let’s get him up to speed and in five weeks let’s get him up to playing his position well,” Reilly said. “We got him comfortable enough and playing well enough so he’s a solid contributor. That’s the biggest thing I learned this year – developing your kids and not just using the kids you have and plugging them in.”

Both programs are optimistic that their numbers will improve, and that they can both field varsity teams in the future. WW-P North already knew at this time last year that their numbers were very low. There is a more positive feeling now.

“Last year, we had significantly less people coming back,” Reilly said. “Last year, we were under the impression, between seniors, juniors and sophomores, we might have 26. Now our numbers are better. Our kids are experienced now.”

Neither Reilly nor Edwards has met yet with the administration, but they know a decision on the future of both football programs will have to be made soon.

“They’re going to have to decide it pretty quick,” Edwards said. “The WJFL has come out with their conferences. They haven’t come out with the schedule. I’d imagine the WJFL is waiting to see what West Windsor-Plainsboro is going to do. I don’t think they want to do what they had to do this year where they had to scramble to fill in games because High School North had to cancel their schedule.”

WW-P North and South also want to know how it will be proceeding. They have already started preparing for next year though there’s the unknown of how things will look exactly.

“The high school football season is year-round, and when you’re not quite sure and you’re not planning on solid ground, that’s hard,” Reilly said. “This is an advantage to know what you’re going to face and what you’re going to do. It’s about being logical and doing what’s best for the student-athlete.”

The coaches haven’t talked about some of the logistics of a co-op, such as who would be head coach, where they would practice and whose nickname they would use. But just having the option to co-op makes them confident that they can figure out what is best for both programs, and they know they won’t have to leave one in the tough situation that the Knights faced this year.

“Throughout this process, there are many members of the football community that have come together to support WW-P student-athletes,” Aderhold said. “We are fortunate to have such tremendous student leaders that have banded together to support one another. My thanks to our community for its tremendous support of the High School North JV team this past season.”