Each year as Immaculate Heart Central football players gather for the first practice of the new season, as they did Monday, the Cavaliers know going in that they are fighting an uphill battle.
The optimism that is usually associated with a new season is tempered a bit at IHC because players and coaches alike know well they will be playing against schools often twice their size, with many more numbers, and that the Cavaliers will have to be at the top of their game every week just to compete in Section 3 Class C.
“We don’t even bring the numbers thing up any more,’’ said IHC head coach Paul Alteri, entering his seventh season as the Cavaliers’ head man. “Our philosophy is to just go with the flow and not worry about what we can’t control. And I think we like the underdog role a little bit.’’
You know the story by now. IHC, currently the third-smallest school in Section 3 still playing football, has been forced to play in Class C although its state classification, or BEDS number, for the last two years and this year are well below the cutoff for Class D schools.
IHC’s BEDS number for the 2012-2013 school year, according to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, is 170. Only New York Mills at 132 and Oriskany at 162 is smaller in the entire section. And both are Class D in football.
IHC’s classification number is actually up this year after a low of 141 in 2010-11 and 159 last season. But the Cavaliers still rank among the top 10 smallest schools in the state still offering football.
After Section 3 voted to move IHC up from Class D to Class C two years ago, the Cavaliers sued to reverse that decision. The suit is still in litigation, although Alteri said he hopes a settlement could finally be forthcoming within the next few months.
Regardless of whether IHC wins or loses the lawsuit, Alteri and his players press on. They’ve gone 13-5 the last two seasons since being elevated to Class C, finishing 7-2 in 2010-11 and 6-3 last season, including sectional berths both seasons.
Alteri said it’s a tribute to his players that they can compete at such a high level despite the odds stacked against them.
“We’ve got a lot of dedicated athletes here, or we wouldn’t be able to continue our program,’’ Alteri said. “I’d say about 90 percent of our boys play at least one sport and probably more than 50 percent play two or three.’’
Matt Moran, a senior quarterback who also plays basketball and lacrosse at IHC, said playing several sports “helps you stay more focused and disciplined. Most of us have been doing it since fourth or fifth grade.’’
Senior lineman Greg Abbass said the multi-sport athlete “is also more used to a set routine, and that certainly helps in football.’’
As for being the underdog, both players said it forces IHC to play harder and be more mentally focused. “You can’t take a play or a day off here,’’ Abbass said. “It’s total commitment or nothing if we want to succeed.’’
IHC is also one of the few small schools still offering both football and boys soccer, which puts an added drain on the availability of athletes.
The Cavaliers’ football numbers have been “pretty steady,’’ according to Alteri. Around 30 players signed up for varsity this year.
IHC competes in Class C North along with General Brown (341 BEDS number), Altmar-Parish-Williamstown (337), Adirondack (328), Lowville (299) and Thousand Islands (256). Class C schools can be as big as 399 students in grades 9-11.
Alteri said he’s not worried about this season or next. “But five or 10 years down the line, who knows. I believe the concussion issue has kept and will keep some kids away because their parents are afraid of them getting hurt.’’
New York State has put in place strict regulations concerning concussions over the last few years.
IHC opens the season on Sept. 1 at Altmar-Parish-Williamstown.
Watertown High School began practice Monday with conditioning drills in the afternoon on the WHS turf field.
Senior Shyheim Gadson said the Cyclones, coming off a 6-3 season and another Class A playoff appearance, “couldn’t wait to get back on the field. All the work we put in as a team this summer pointed to this day, so I think everybody was anxious to get going.’’
Head coach Vince Williams said he’s excited about his team’s prospects despite losing plenty of talent, especially along the offensive line.
“We had five guys graduate, and four are playing college football, so that’s a big question mark,’’ Williams said. “But I think we have some young guys who will fill in nicely.’’
WHS also welcomed General Brown transfer Kendall Vecchio, who will play on the offensive and defensive lines.
Williams has a plethora of standouts at the skill positions, including returning All-North tailback Diamond Williams and starting quarterback Mason Phillips. Speedy junior Anton Gadsen will back up Williams and also play alongside him at times. And Williams said he’s got at last five receivers who could be the top target, including Gadsen, Willie Scott and Ryan Bajjaly.
“Defensively, we’ll be very fast,’’ Williams said. “But depth will be a concern at certain positions.’’
WHS opens Aug. 31 at New Hartford.