WOODBURY – Despite the pleas of players and parents at recent Board of Education meetings to join a co-op, Region 14 Schools announced that the Nonnewaug football program will remain a junior varsity program.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Joseph A. Olzacki distributed a letter to the Region 14 community on Thursday that highlighted the features and benefits of a JV presence, players and their parents said during the June 3 Board of Education meeting that they felt left out of the decision process.
Nonnewaug Football Booster Club president Chris Mauro said the Board of Education promised on May 20 to meet with board members, Nonnewaug administrators, and concerned parents to discuss the future of the football program. While the board and the administrators said they met prior to the June 3 Board of Education meeting, Mauro said the parents were not involved until Thursday – the same day Olzacki sent the letter to the community.
With a lack of student-athletes on its roster, parents and players were hoping Nonnewaug could compete on the varsity level by becoming part of a co-op with another school. That would have allowed Nonnewaug’s student-athletes – including 11 rising seniors – to compete at a varsity level.
How Nonnewaug Football Got Here
During the June 3 Board of Education meeting, Nonnewaug Dean of Students and Athletic Director Declan Curtin presented a timeline of events that led to the decision to not go co-op.
Earlier this year, Head Coach Zach Mihaly – who has since resigned – met with Curtin and Nonnewaug Principal Julie Luby to discuss the football program’s future. The three options on the table were to continue as a varsity program, continue as a JV program, or pursue co-op options.
Mihaly, Curtin, and Luby then reached out to Oxford, Litchfield, Waterbury Career Academy, Shepaug, Sacred Heart/Kaynor Tech, and other local schools to discuss the possibility of starting a co-op or joining an existing co-op. The emphasis was on finding a program that would allow it to maintain a Nonnewaug presence – including playing games on Nonnewaug’s soon-to-be-built artificial turf field and wearing Nonnewaug’s uniforms.
While Curtin was out on medical leave in the late winter, Mihaly and Luby met with the principal and athletic director at Sacred Heart, and a deal to join there was an agreement in place to join the Sacred Heart/Kaynor Tech co-op team. However, the Sacred Heart Board of Trustees declined it, stating that they wanted everything to stay in Sacred Heart’s name.
Though Sacred Heart was willing to have the prospective co-op’s JV games played at Nonnewaug, Nonnewaug wanted its uniforms to be worn during those games. When Sacred Heart said no to that request, Nonnewaug was unable to join a co-op before the CIAC’s extended deadline.
Did the Uniforms Matter?
A headcount taken by Curtin shows that there are 38 players signed up or interested in playing for Nonnewaug in 2019. That includes 5 rising freshmen who are currently in eighth grade at Woodbury Middle School and excludes eighth graders from schools that send students to Nonnewaug’s VoAG program.
Those numbers would put Nonnewaug over the minimum requirements to be part of a co-op in the 2020-21 school year. However, the school was eligible to be part of a co-op this season – had it met the CIAC deadline – based on having just 24 players on its roster last season.
Several Nonnewaug players have gone on the record as saying it did not matter to them whose uniforms were worn on gameday, so long as they were given the opportunity to compete at the varsity level.
“I’ve wanted nothing more in my life than to go out on that field as a varsity player and to be able to play alongside my brothers and sisters in a varsity program,” rising senior co-captain C.J. Fairbairn, who started on the varsity as a sophomore on defense, told the Board of Education on June 3. “I wanted to be able to go out there my junior and senior year and play varsity along with my brothers and sisters who may not have had a chance to play varsity. I hope (the board) will consider giving me and my brothers and sisters the opportunity to play varsity with a co-op.”
Kellen Herman, a rising junior, compared football to a brotherhood, and described how he and other teammates had been accepted as part of a family when they first started playing for the Chiefs.
When Herman was a freshman, senior Eli Mills Nanthan moved in with family in Woodbury right after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico. Herman said Nanthan immediately joined the football team and was accepted and loved like he’d been with the program for four seasons.
If Nonnewaug had been given the opportunity to join a co-op, Herman said he and his teammates would have been as welcoming and as welcomed.
“We would love each other just the same, and we’d adapt,” Herman said. “We don’t care who we play with, it’s a brotherhood, it’s a sisterhood.”
What About Nonnewaug Football’s Future?
On April 25 – his birthday – Mihaly held a meeting with the Nonnewaug Booster Club and announced that he and his coaching staff had submitted their resignations.
Mihaly accepted the head coaching position in June 2017, and the Chiefs finished 2-8 in his first season. With only 24 players on its roster in 2018, the Chiefs decided to play a JV schedule. Playing solely against JV teams, Nonnewaug won its first four games of the season and finished with a 5-3 record.
On May 31, Ed Roden was appointed the new head football coach. Roden has overseen the Nonnewaug flag football program and has been a coach with Pomperaug Pop Warner Football. Roden is also an AAU basketball coach and an assistant coach with the Nonnewaug boys basketball team.
Nonnewaug does not have a Pop Warner program, as it disbanded in 2012. Curtin said he hopes Roden will be able to use his excellent interpersonal skills used to build partnerships to influence Region 14 children to play youth football. The Nonnewaug program will also get assistance from Watertown, whose head coach, Luigi Velardi, is Nonnewaug’s softball coach, to ensure the Chiefs’ remain compliant with the CIAC offseason rules.
Region 14 children who want to play tackle football can play with the Pop Warner program in Watertown. Pomperaug Pop Warner recently closed its program off to out-of-town players. Region 14 kids can also play in the Oxford Flag Football League.
Curtin said he has seven confirmed games against JV and “weak varsity” teams and said there may be up to 10 games total. Games against varsity programs will not count as a CIAC game for those teams in their overall playoff point totals.
Until Nonnewaug’s new artificial turf field is ready on about September 6, and while Nonnewaug High School finishes renovations this summer, the football team will be based out of Mitchell Elementary School. A temporary weight room is being put in the building from June 24 until August 17, the first official day of practice, and a football field will be lined outside. A storage and equipment facility will also be put there.