Heading into this year's fall football season, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School head coach Donald Herman knew his team was going to face new challenges. He just didn't expect them to come from off the field.
A string of disciplinary actions - resulting in numerous team suspensions - has thrown the Vineyarders' season into a tailspin.
Coupled with a slew of injuries unseen in previous seasons, the suspensions have stripped this year's squad of several core players, leaving holes on the field and a coach deeply concerned about his team's risky behavior off the gridiron.
State police plan to charge three varsity football players with possession of alcohol and drugs after an alleged speeding incident two weeks ago on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road in Edgartown.
Police said the car was traveling at more than 80 miles per hour.
While the three teenagers await possible charges in juvenile court, Coach Herman has already meted out his own punishment - suspension for the remainder of the season.
"We have had some kids this year make stupid mistakes," he told the Gazette Monday. "When kids violate school policy, you're forced to take them out of the games. But more than that, these kids have to use their heads, especially when it comes to making choices off the field."
The arrests and suspension come less than six months after two high schoolers were killed in a high-speed car crash in Edgartown, a tragedy firmly fixed in Mr. Herman's mind.
"As a coach, you want to support your players, but you think about what this community has gone through just in the last year alone and it's frustrating," he said. "You hope they would learn from that.
"These are not bad kids, they just made bad decisions," he added.
On this year's football squad, they aren't alone.
One player was suspended earlier in the season for violating the school chemical health policy. This past weekend, another player was arrested by Tisbury police and charged with assault after a Halloween night paintball gun shooting incident. That player will miss the next two games.
"When you have a group of 70 kids, the only way to manage them is to enforce the same rules for all of them with no exceptions," Coach Herman said.
The coaching staff strives to keep the players' minds on athletics by providing dinner and a movie for the team on Friday nights before Saturday games. Players are also supposed to abide by a 10 p.m. curfew on those nights.
Coach Herman's strict rules are well-known and help to define his 17-year tenure. During that time, his football program has been consistently successful with five Division VI Super Bowl trophies and countless winning seasons to prove it.
But as the Vineyarders limp into tonight's game against Cape Cod Tech with a 3-5 record, Coach Herman finds himself with the rare prospect of a losing season.
It would be only his third. Already, this year's team is only the third in the last 10 to lose more than three games in a season. In this season of adversity, Coach Herman concedes that the chances for bringing home a second consecutive Super Bowl trophy are waning.
"We need some teams to lose if we are going to have a shot," he said.
Along with the suspensions, injuries have also hamstrung the team. Seniors Kyle Robertson, fullback, and Adam Petkus, defensive back, returned on Friday night for their first games in over a month. Robertson returned from a four-game hiatus with a broken foot while Petkus missed five games with a bad knee.
The list grows from there: senior linebacker Andrew Farrissey and junior offensive lineman Joe Hegarty both missed games after sustaining concussions, and senior Nathan Larsen was sidelined with tendinitis in his hip. Sophomore Alan Fortes will also miss the rest of the season thanks to an injury.
In Friday night's win against South Shore, the team was dealt another blow when a broken collarbone put junior defensive back John Swan - perhaps the team's best defensive player - on the disabled list.
"We have more injuries this year than the last three or four season combined," said the coach. "With the disciplinary problems and our schedule, which is the hardest we have faced yet, it's been tough.
"It's been an interesting season," he added.