Change is a constant in high school athletics, as players graduate at the end of each year and are replaced the next by a new crop of underclassmen. But as the fall sports season begins this week at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, there is so much change you might need a guide to sort it all out.
For starters, all the fall sports teams — football, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ cross country, field hockey and golf — have a new league: the Eastern Athletic Conference. The conference includes Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth, Coyle and Cassidy High School in Taunton, and Somerset High School.
The Vineyard has been without a conference since the principals of the South Coast Conference voted in December 2006 not to allow the regional high school to remain in the league. And although a majority of coaches and players are happy to once again be part of a league, playing in the EAC does bring new challenges.
All the EAC schools are bigger and draw from a larger pool of student athletes, and many boast some of the strongest programs in the state in certain sports, year in and year out. The change to the new league also has forced the Vineyard to drop other teams they have played consistently for years.
Another huge change, arguably the largest, is the cancellation of the annual Island Cup football game with inter-Island rival Nantucket. The game was cancelled for the first time in nearly 50 years, reportedly because Nantucket was having problems raising the money needed to travel to the Vineyard.
And Sandra (Sandy) Mincone has replaced Michael Joyce as the new athletic director.
Mr. Joyce left the position to return to the classroom as a biology teacher; Ms. Mincone is a health teacher at the high school.
Then are a number of coaching changes: longtime boys’ soccer coach Bob Hammond retired and has been replaced by Damon Burke, while girls’ soccer coach Russ MacDonald stepped down was replaced by new coach Ariadne Nevin.
Coach Donald Herman has trouble talking about the cancellation of the Island Cup this year. “I’m still so mad about that. I still can’t believe there will be no game this year. I don’t even like to think about it,” he said.
The longtime football coach also is not thrilled about the new athletic conference, which will almost certainly mean a tougher year and fewer wins. “I think we’ll be lucky to [win half our games] this season . . . but you play the hand you are dealt, and make the best of it,” Coach Herman said.
The football team lost 25 players from last year, some because of graduation, but seven players did not return. “We have a few players each year who decide not to come back, but seven players is a lot . . . I can’t say why they decided not to return, it was their decision,” Mr. Herman said.
The team lost three-year starting quarterback Mike McCarthy to graduation, as well as backup Nick Billingham. Randall Jette, who is untested but considered one of the best athletes on the team, will step into their shoes.
Coach Herman plans to tailor the offense around Jette’s skills.
“His ability to run the ball will allow us to do a lot of different things,” he said.
On defense, the team lost Nick Gross, Cody Brewer and Finn Kaeka to graduation, while one of their best defensive ends, Patrick Hart, will miss this season because of an injury. Meanwhile Erik Dolliver, a standout last year on offense and defense, decided not to play.
This leaves Thomas Tilton-Heylin, Brian Montambault, Andres Silva and Kevin O’Donnell as linebackers.
One strength of the team, the coach said should be the offensive line, which will be anchored by returning three-year starter D.J. Kaeka at tackle, Devin Balboni at center, Mike Agnoli at guard (moved from tackle) and Tilton-Hayden at the other guard position.
Coach Herman said the team has experience at most positions, if lacking in depth. If the team stays healthy, he said, they have a shot at a winning season. “I say that every year, but this year it’s especially true. For whatever reason, we have fewer players this year since the mid 1990s; six seniors alone decided not to play, so we cannot lose anyone to injuries,” he said.
The team plays its opener tonight against Old Rochester at 6:30 p.m. at the high school.
Ariadne Nevin, the new girls’ soccer coach, is still getting to know her players, but she is excited about what she has seen so far.
“We had our first game [Tuesday] against Sandwich and we lost [6-0],” she said on Wednesday. “But right now it’s less about wins and losses and more about what we are learning. We still have some things to work on, like ball control and passing, but this seems like a cohesive bunch who are eager to learn.”
The team is mostly sophomores and juniors, with four seniors and two freshmen sprinkled in. She acknowledged it will be a challenge coaching a younger team in a brand new conference, but said the emphasis will be playing as a team.
Coach Nevin recalls her days as a player at the regional high school when previous coach Jay Schofield was fond of a particular saying: “A person first. A player second.” She said it is a mantra she has already adopted as coach.
“I know it’s corny. But what it means to me is that players should find a balance in their life between many things: playing athletics, schoolwork [and] friendships,” she said.
The team beat Wareham on the road on Wednesday 1-0, and plays at home tomorrow against Whitinsville Christian High School at 7 p.m.
New boys’ soccer coach Damon Burke also is getting to know his team.
“It’s a young team with mostly juniors and sophomores, there are a few seniors . . . it seems like a very strong bunch with fit players. If I had to guess, we will be a defensive team that builds its attack from the back of the field,” he said.
Seniors Peter Perrson and Nick Jerome, and junior Jack Wadleigh, already have been named as cocaptains; all three are defensive players. Coach Burke said Philipe Freitas and Leandro Trindade are expected to lead the offense, with the team using a 4-4-2 scheme with overlapping fullbacks.
The team played a preseason game against Connecticut-based powerhouse E.O. Smith High School. Although they lost 1-0, the team played exceptionally well, the coach said.
“We had the better of the play for most of the game, but just didn’t get the win. There were some encouraging signs,” he said.
The coach is positive about the season, despite the transitional phase.
“Playing in a new conference brings challenges, and these teams [in the EAC] are really strong. But I think we have a shot at having a really great season . . . the kids so far have been great,” he said.