Sigonella reluctantly sidelines football program
When you play the game of inches, you win, or you play volleyball. Or maybe cross country.
Such was the dilemma facing Sigonella athletics this offseason. The tale is one of dwindling budgets and narrowing margins, an instructive case study on the current state of DODDS-Europe athletics. A spoiler: it concludes with the happy-enough ending of a dozen or so teens playing high school volleyball instead of football.
First, some background. In 2012, DODDS-Europe offered three divisions in football, determined by school population in the interest of competitive balance. Small schools Alconbury, Baumholder, Bamberg, Brussels, Menwith Hill, Rota and Sigonella formed Division III, playing nine-man football to accommodate small rosters. But the division’s seven teams were scattered across five countries and separated by thousands of kilometers. As a result, single games routinely cost DODDS-Europe more than $10,000 to stage, with most of that money going to international air travel.
Amid shuttering bases, shrinking school populations, sequestration and a general climate of governmental austerity, DODDS-Europe athletic director Karen Seadore and her council of advisors sought to slash the travel budget by severely curtailing the purchase of expensive airplane tickets. DODDS-Europe football was realigned into a simpler two-division structure featuring its largest schools in Division I and the rest in Division II, all playing 11-man football. Division II schools were split into north and south regions and restricted to playing games within their own region.
The former Division III schools reacted in various ways to the change. Alconbury, Baumholder and Rota mustered the personnel to join Division II. Brussels and Menwith Hill jumped into a makeshift independent league, where they’ll play nine-man ball against four teams from England. Bamberg merged its program with Bavarian neighbor Schweinfurt, an incumbent Division II team.
Which leads us back to Sigonella. Athletic director Michelle Chandler and football coach Matt McKown aspired to pull together a roster robust enough for the rigors of 11-man football. Chandler said she asked the DODDS-Europe council for guidance as to how many kids they’d need for a viable Division II team, and was provided the rough estimate of 20. But with the core of his 2012 Division III semifinalist team graduating or otherwise moving on, McKown plucked only “16 or 17” willing and able football players from the ranks of the school’s fluctuating ranks of about 100 students in grades 9 through 12.
As a result, Chandler and McKown chose to abandon the 2013 Jaguar football season, a decision made more difficult by the stark truth that a program, once folded, can be hard to revive.
“We really wanted to try to have it. We felt really strongly that it might be hard to get back,” Chandler said. “We know things are tight and going to get tighter. We wanted to give it an honest try.”
It wasn’t successful. While 2012’s football team was brought together by a group of determined seniors recruiting schoolmates to the squad, there was no such movement this year. The transition to boys volleyball, with a schedule comprised entirely of other Italian schools, was relatively painless. Singularly-focused prodigies do exist, but the average DODDS-Europe student-athlete contributes to several different teams throughout the school year and is not intensely committed to a particular sport.
Besides, Sigonella’s small student body has long made it impossible to field two team sports for boys each fall. If you’re picturing a young Jaguar with helmet in hand, crestfallen at being unable to play high school football this fall, picture alongside him an equally morose boy from recent years who was denied the chance to play volleyball because most of his peers preferred the gridiron. Administrators can’t indulge every child’s interests with a staffed and funded school-wide program.
“Most of the boys have flipped over to volleyball,” Chandler said. “We’re lucky that we can go over and offer that.”
Boys volleyball is a good fit for Sigonella. The Jaguar girls volleyball team is a thriving contender that will have to cut some of the 28 girls Chandler said are vying for spots on this year’s squad. The teams will travel together by bus to take on regional rivals such as Naples, Aviano and Vicenza in boys and girls volleyball doubleheaders. McKown will coach many of the same boys he planned on coaching this fall, only in volleyball now instead of football.
“It could have been worse. They could have nothing to go to,” Chandler said. “We’re fortunate still. I hope it doesn’t get worse.”