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High school sports mergers on the rise in St. Lawrence County

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Paul Pierce’s five athletic children probably could have excelled in basketball, soccer and either baseball or softball for Lisbon High School.

Perhaps they could have made some all-star teams and continued their careers at a decent college.

But for all five, their true passion is running.

Because of its small size, their home school can’t field teams in track or cross country. Thanks, however, to a merger agreement that allows Lisbon students to compete for Canton High’s track and field team, Pierce’s oldest son, John, became a high school and collegiate All-American in the sport and earned an athletic scholarship to Stanford University.

Paul’s next-oldest son, Matt, is now a senior who runs track for Division I Dartmouth College, and his two oldest daughters are on the track team at Division III Grove City College. Meanwhile, Paul’s youngest child, Laura, is deciding which Division I school to compete for after she graduates from Lisbon in June.

“It created great opportunities for my kids and for others, too,” Paul Pierce said. “They wouldn’t have gone to those universities without running (at Canton). That was their ticket.”

Public high schools in the area have been combining sports teams since the 1970s, but longtime athletic directors and administrators say the practice has increased significantly in the past decade in Section 10 as a way to save those teams from elimination amid financial and enrollment woes.

Section 10 comprises the 23 schools in St. Lawrence County, and all 17 high schools in Jefferson and Lewis counties are in Section 3. That section’s coordinator, John Rathbun, said the number of mergers among schools in Jefferson and Lewis has stayed “pretty consistent” during his six-year tenure.

Section 10, meanwhile, has approved 10 new athletic mergers for the upcoming spring season, increasing its total to 13 sports across the 20 schools that have combined programs.

There are 40 merged teams in the section.

“Since I’ve been here, I would say (we have) at least two-thirds more than what we had in the past,” said Carl Normandin, who is in his 13th year as Section 10’s coordinator. He added that the section office only keeps a record of mergers from the current and previous year.

In the next decade, Normandin said he believes the number of merged teams in the section will continue to rise, and school districts eventually could merge entire athletic programs.

“Given the current state of the economy — and there’s not an influx of people moving to Northern New York — I think you’ll see not only more merger agreements, but combined athletic programs where rather than requesting on a sport-by-sport basis, you’ll see combined athletic programs.”

Rathbun offered a similar forecast for the programs.

“I would say probably yes, and/or even school districts merging. We saw that last year with Mohawk and Ilion merging into one school district (near Utica). They actually have been encouraging that at the state level and making it financially beneficial for school districts to do that. So I think we will probably see more school mergers five years or 10 years down the road.”



DECLINING ENROLLMENT

In the north country, a proposal to merge the Canton and Potsdam school districts already exists. Overall at area schools, merging athletic teams is a key way to save those programs from declining participation brought on in part by decreasing enrollment at schools.

According to the U.S. Census, the population in the 5 to 17 age group dropped 14.5 percent in St. Lawrence County from 2000 to 2010. The rate of decline was 15.6 percent in Lewis County and 6.4 in Jefferson.

“We’ve lost (significant) student enrollment over the last 15 years, and we’re still offering the same amount of programs with less kids,” said Michael Stevens, who is in his 18th year as Sandy Creek High School’s athletic director. “And obviously all the schools went through the budget crunch, so that’s tough business.

“Schools are turning to combining to save things (when) the alternative is dropping a program,” he added.

As the need for mergers has increased, communities have become more receptive to the practice, according to William Porter, Canton High’s athletic director for 21 years.

“At one time it was a little more split, but I think that in most of the sports we merge in today, they’re very well-received. We want them, we need them, and everybody knows it, so it’s not an issue,” he said.

Several area coaches say ill feelings over playing time between players from different schools are far less prevalent than they used to be.

“Those were kind of initial conflicts that we had when we first started to merge programs,” said Joe Eppolito, head coach of the Islanders hockey team, which consists of players from high schools in Thousand Islands, Alexandria and LaFargeville. “But you don’t see as much of that because merging is becoming more and more of a necessity. When school districts are considering merging services, primarily for financial purposes, it makes sense to do that with athletics as well, especially in a cost-intensive sport like hockey.”

Chris Sturick, head coach of the Ontario Bay hockey team, which consists of players from Pulaski, Sandy Creek, South Jefferson, Mexico, Altmar-Parish-Williamstown and Sackets Harbor high schools, said his program, started in 1995, was the first in the area to combine under a name unattached to a host school district.

He credits that model, one that others in the state have followed, with lessening potential conflicts over ice time between players from different schools.

“It alleviates that issue right away,” Sturick said. “Obviously I deal with parents that may question or may wonder why their (son) isn’t getting what they think is adequate ice time, but it’s never involved in a school situation: ‘Hey, my kid is from Mexico; how come the Pulaski kid is getting more ice time?’ That is never an issue.”



WORKING THINGS OUT

The growing trend of mergers led to a statewide regulation implemented last fall, an effort spearheaded by Section 3, to ensure that schools are combining for the purpose of saving programs and providing opportunities to students from neighboring schools, not to gain a competitive advantage.

That regulation, the graduated scale, determines that the host school must add a percentage of the smaller school’s district enrollment numbers, which can bump teams to higher levels of competition.

Sandy Creek-Pulaski boys soccer is one area team affected by the graduated scale, which is in the first year of a two-year pilot program.

The team moved up from Class C to Class B and went 0-15 last fall. At the urging of parents and supporters of the program, Stevens — the Sandy Creek athletic director — said the team forfeited its right to qualify for the sectional playoffs next season in order to move back to Class C and play more evenly matched opponents.

“Even if we go undefeated, we won’t go to sectionals. We know that going in,” Stevens said. “Whether that helps us or not, we’ll see.”

With few other standards in place, schools that combine athletic programs have the freedom to work out the logistics of funding, transportation and personnel deployment however they see fit.

The involved school boards get together to develop a plan that must receive approval at the league and section levels each year. Each section then reports mergers to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association for formal approval.

After programs are merged, coaches enforce their own rules, and players are held to their individual school’s code of conduct. For example, a Watertown High student on the Immaculate Heart Central High School hockey team would follow Watertown’s athletic eligibility rules concerning attendance and academics.

Financially, most teams — such as Ontario Bay hockey — divide costs between schools based on the number of players from each district. Ontario Bay also formed its own booster club to help fund the program.

Sandy Creek and Pulaski divide operations by sport in their agreement: Sandy Creek hosts and runs everything associated with the boys soccer program, while Pulaski does the same for boys swimming.

In most scenarios, schools rotate transportation.

“People get together, the districts, the administration, the boards, the vested interest groups and parents and kids, and you make decisions on how you want it to run,” Stevens said. “One of the nice things about combining is there is no set standard; you can do different things to make it work.”



‘DIFFERENT MASCOT’

Mergers in more individualized sports such as track and field are less complicated and therefore most common in the north country, while mergers in team sports present unique challenges for coaches and players.

“It’s trying to incorporate those kids into the school atmosphere and into our program,” said Canton football coach Austin Weakfall, whose team includes players from Edwards-Knox, Lisbon and Hermon-DeKalb high schools. “They are wearing different colors and playing with a different mascot (than usual), and our kids need to get to know them. Sometimes the kids already know the other kids from other sports, but making them feel like they are part of the team is probably the biggest challenge.”

Most players welcome teammates from other schools, according to Jordan Trudeau, assistant captain of the hockey team at IHC. That team added four General Brown players this past season to a pre-existing combination with Watertown and Indian River.

Trudeau said he didn’t hear any complaints about playing time and that the added depth was welcomed.

“If you don’t know some of the kids, it’s kind of difficult at first, but that’s the great thing about being on a team like that — you get to know more people,” he said.

Athletes who compete for a school other than their own, such as Laura Pierce at Canton High, are grateful for the opportunity to compete in sports that aren’t offered at their school.

Pierce, a senior, placed fourth in the state cross-country meet last fall and helped Canton finish second in the team standings. She won the state title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in track and field as a junior last spring.

Pierce is deciding between college offers from the University of Virginia and Cornell. She has been recruited by both schools for cross country and track and field.

“I’m very happy that I’ve had the experience of being on a team, and it’s hard to say (whether) I’d still be running or attempting to run in college if I didn’t have that team for the past few years,” Pierce said. “It’s become a huge part of my experience in general, and I feel like I have a lot of support in the Canton community.”



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