Holy Cross football on hold in 2018
The last thing Andrew Boon wanted to do in his first year as principal at Holy Cross was to pull the plug on the school’s football program.
But that’s what the football fan and former McGill football player had to do Monday night when it became apparent there weren’t enough players to safely compete in Niagara Catholic Athletic Association play.
“It’s disappointing,” said Boon, who played his high school football at Notre Dame in Welland. “There’s no way of spinning of it.”
Holy Cross has run a football program since the school’s inception in 1985.
Holy Cross’s coaching staff knew the program was in crisis when only 12 players showed up for the team’s training camp in the last week of August.
“I had conversations with the coaches right off the bat because there weren’t many kids out,” Boon said. “Then you think, first week of school, big push, lots of conversations, but as we went through that first week it was pretty clear we were in trouble.”
At the end of the first week of school, there were about 20-21 players attending practice and Boon’s conversations with the coaching staff (Jim Craig, Gerry DiSanto, Dave Thomson and Brian O’Rourke) — which has more than 100 combined years of coaching experience — intensified.
“When you see the amount of (Grade) 9s and 10s that would have had to potentially make up that program and you look at some of the men they would be playing against at the Grade 12 level, it was safety first,” Boon said. “We can’t safely field a team.”
Everyone at Holy Cross is hoping it’s just a one-year absence and steps are being taken to help in that regard.
“Our coaches will always be coaches and they immediately started to look at what they could do to continue football here in some way and make it a one-year blip, and that we engage the kids in theory and coaching,” Boon said.
Plans include running a seven-a-side intramural football league with a strong teaching component and running some open gym and weight room times to get students ready to play football in 2019.
“It’s something so that kids don’t lose out on opportunities and that there is a home for them to go to and be active after school,” Boon said.
At a meeting with the players Monday night, there was a positive response to the options presented.
“They all wanted to do something,” Boon said.
This year, Holy Cross has a population of 650 students and there is no magic number of players that makes a football program is viable. A school needs a certain percentage of senior players to be competitive.
There had been a rumour in the community that Holy Cross and St. Francis were combining their football programs, but Boon said no discussions were held with St. Francis until Holy Cross decided this week not to run its program.
“The only conversations are right now with the kids I have that are seniors,” he said. “I have six seniors.”
Boon reached out to St. Francis head coach and principal Jim Whittard and his colleague and friend agreed to take the Holy Cross players on his roster.
“I spoke to all their (seniors’) parents and they are very appreciative of what we are trying to do as a school to help the players continue their experience.”
Holy Cross players are eligible to play at St. Francis because their school doesn’t have a football program and St. Francis is the closest school. A similar situation exists in the Niagara Region High School Athletic Association with E.L. Crossley football players suiting up for Centennial.
Two Holy Cross players were at the St. Francis practice on Wednesday and Whittard is hoping to see the rest shortly. It was an easy choice to welcome the Holy Cross players to St. Francis.
“The Phoenix have welcomed them with open arms and a lot of them play together in the summer,” Whittard said. “They are pretty excited to be playing together.”
The only downfall is that St. Francis won’t be eligible to compete in the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations bowl playdowns.
“The NCAA championship is the top prize for us and we are thrilled to have that as a motivator,” said Whittard, adding he knows how tough it will be to win the NCAA crown.
“I am seeing that as an ultimate achievement,” he said. “There are great coaches who I have coached against in the past.”
Boon appreciates St. Francis giving up its OFSAA bowl possibilities even if they are far from a certainty.
“That speaks to their dedication to giving our kids an opportunity to participate and I am very grateful that we have that brotherhood and sisterhood,” Boon said.