Just suiting up a victory for some in Pacific
October 13, 2016
They walked off the football field, vanquished 48-0 by Matthew C. Perry.
The Robert D. Edgren Eagles had just 14 players in uniform to start the game, and managed just 39 net yards against the Samurai. The deepest penetration: The 10-yard line, late in the first half.
Yet, judging from the reaction of players, coach Jeremy Sanders and principal Georgia Watters, the Eagles did come away with some semblance of victory: They managed to play.
That was somewhat of a a victory, given the events of Sept. 17, when Edgren - down to 10 players due to injury - had to forfeit in the second quarter and couldn’t play at all on Sept. 23 at Yokota.
The Eagles’ football future was in doubt.
“Although we came up short on the scoreboard, we didn’t come up short of winning,” Watters said. “Our kids were winners when we walked off the field. They didn’t give up. We had nobody get hurt. I couldn’t have asked for a better-played game.”
Still, it might be asked: why continue to play this season, given that Edgren is now 0-4 and has been outscored 124-0, with at least two of the remaining three games against teams that the Eagles have very little chance of winning: defending Japan Division II champion Yokota current Korea D-II leader Humphreys?
Not just the Eagles Edgren – with three D-II titles to its credit but facing hard times recently – is not alone facing trials in keeping a football program going. Osan couldn’t get a team off the ground this season. Zama, Edgren’s other remaining opponent, has been outscored 204-24 in five games and 164-24 in four D-II contests.
Is all that an indicator of the state of D-II football in the Pacific? Sanders, in his second season as Eagles head coach but in his eighth year with the program, says he doesn’t view football as just about winning and losing. He says he emphasizes what the game teaches about life building.
“There are reasons to continue,” Sanders said. “It’s not always about the score, it’s not about the record. Football builds so many traits and attributes of human character. Discipline, responsibility, effort; pick an adjective and you can follow it up with the game of football.”
What about self-confidence after a one-sided defeat?
“Coming off the field, we had stuck through, forged a bond with everybody and proved that football isn’t just about people hitting each other,” said senior quarterback Patrick Sledge. “Character, heart, determination, so much more. We proved it that night.”
If Sledge and the other 13 players who suited up Friday were discouraged, “I couldn’t tell,” Sanders said. “The game Friday was not evident of that. I had 14 kids and every last one of them competed.”
Low enrollments, new reality? A team with 14 players would have to forfeit in DODEA-Europe, due to concerns about overmatched players suffering serious injuries. And the 17 the Eagles began with on Aug. 8 probably wouldn’t cut it either.
Youth and high school football participation in the States is on the radar of colleges and the NFL, with some fearing fewer players coming through the pipeline.
Much of that is due to potential injuries, with concussions and life-altering head trauma gaining attention in the media and courtrooms.
Yet Sanders says he refuses to quit, just as he hasn’t given up on reviving the military team he used to coach, the Misawa Jets, whose heritage can be traced back to the 1960s until their last season, 2013.
“It’s funny how those mirror each other,” Sanders said. “We do have avenues that we’re thinking about,” such as recruiting, inviting middle-schoolers out to see how the Eagles team works, inviting parents out to demonstrate how Sanders and his staff are running the program.
If Edgren doesn’t have enough numbers and size for a varsity team, “then we’ll do a JV team until years down the line, we might have a viable program,” Sanders said.
Numbers game for Cougars Osan faced the same issue when Aug. 8 rolled around. Coach Don Tusha had just 13 bodies to form a team, with his projected starting right tackle being Carson Nugent, principal Morgan Nugent’s son, who stands 6-feet but weighs 138 pounds.
“That’s not a good sign,” Morgan Nugent said.
Carson, for his part, said it was disappointing that he couldn’t play football; he ended up on the boys volleyball team. “We were too undersized,” Carson Nugent said.
It’s not the first time Osan has had issues fielding a varsity team. The Cougars suspended operations the last two weeks of the 2015 season when they fell short of healthy bodies, went 0-7 in 2014, did not play a varsity schedule in 2013 and went 0-8 in 2012. Osan last won a game on Oct. 14, 2011, 35-25 over Daegu.
“Our goal is to bring football back” to Osan, Morgan Nugent said. “Football sets the tone for the remainder of the school year. It’s kind of difficult to have a homecoming without a football game, to do our crowning ceremonies, not having the game diminishes those festivities.”
But how to bring back football to Osan and try to keep it vibrant at Edgren when so few players come out?
Eight-man football? Discussion has been raised about going to nine- or eight-man football at the D-II level, considering that enrollments at smaller DODEA-Pacific schools range from 327 at Zama to 145 at Perry. All but Zama and Yokota are at 200 or below.
“We have to do something, from a health and safety standpoint,” said Tusha, one who believes that injury concerns “may influence some parents” to keep their sons away from the gridiron.
“As an organization, we have to look at fielding eight-man across the board,” he said. That could make rosters more viable and perhaps entice schools such as E.J. King, which doesn’t field football, to consider doing so.
DODEA-Pacific athletics coordinator Tom McKinney said the issue was tabled at the latest Pacific athletic directors video-tech conference, but that it can be discussed again. “Everything’s on the table,” McKinney said.
Not every small school has suffered equally.
Perry, for example, has an enrollment 51 students shy of Edgren, according to the latest figures released by DODEA. Daegu, with 169, is three-time defending Far East D-II football champion.
“But it doesn’t help,” Samurai football coach Frank Macias said of smaller enrollments.
For now, the Eagles plan to soldier on and – barring injuries – continue through the rest of the season.
“We’ll take it one week at a time. We’re not going to take chances with our kids,” Watters said.
As for Osan, “We’ll take one season to bulk up and get stronger and be ready to come back next season,” Carson Nugent said.