ROCKPORT, Maine — The safety of the student-athletes is the primary concern for the coaches and administrators at Camden Hills High School.
With the Windjammers’ football roster — one laden with players lacking varsity experience — recently having been depleted by injuries, administrators at Camden Hills have canceled the remainder of the season.
“This was a difficult decision because so many people, especially the Five Town Football community, worked extremely hard to bring football to our school,” school principal Nick Ithomitis announced in a news release Thursday. “We are proud of our football players, coaches, parents and fans.
“They did their best to make football an integral part of our athletic program. Unfortunately, dwindling numbers of players have created a serious safety issue, and we are simply not willing to put any more students at risk.”
The decision to halt football was made on Wednesday during a meeting between Ithomitis and Camden Hills athletic administrator Steve Alex. First-year head football coach Thad Chilton said he was not involved in the discussion.
“It was only after our [Wednesday afternoon] practice that I discovered that a decision had been made and then was asked to come back to school later in the day to discuss it with [Alex],” Chilton said, adding that he was not asked to be present when the players were told of the decision on Thursday.
Alex said he called or left a phone message with at least one parent of each football player during the day on Thursday.
Ithomitis, Alex and Chilton were expected to meet with parents of the football players on Thursday night to discuss the decision.
The football situation came under review after Saturday’s 53-14 home loss to perennial regional power Bucksport. During that game, four Camden Hills starters were lost to injuries that included a concussion, two hand or wrist ailments and a strained knee.
“When we looked at who was able to play this coming Saturday [a home game against Ellsworth/Sumner], we could not in good conscience put those kids out there and ask them to play a varsity football game,” Alex said.
Chilton, whose team was 0-3 this season in the Class D North, believes all four players would have recovered and been ready to compete again in their scheduled Oct. 2 contest at Maine Central Institute.
The Camden Hills varsity program has typically started seasons with 30-35 players but often finishes in the 20s due to attrition stemming primarily from injuries and academic problems.
Limited numbers often mean younger players who normally would compete on subvarsity teams are forced into varsity competition against older and more physically mature players. Camden Hills does not sponsor freshman or junior varsity teams.
Sacopee Valley of South Hiram dropped its varsity schedule in 2014 after five winless seasons, while Telstar of Bethel (0-2 this season) is considering its future after going winless last fall.
Chilton said 12 players with considerable experience who could have competed in 2015 chose not to play. That left 28 players — six seniors, four juniors, six sophomores and 12 freshmen — on the initial roster Camden Hills submitted to the Maine Principals’ Association in August.
Thus, there were a handful of players with little or no football experience on the roster, along with three girls.
“Some of those kids, if we were to play this weekend, they really are not at the level where they should be playing [at the varsity level],” Alex offered.
Chilton said he would never put an athlete’s well-being in jeopardy and that he was confident the Windjammers would have been competitive against a Ellsworth/Sumner program playing its fourth varsity season.
“Our administrators felt like we were so thin that if anybody went down, we’d be reaching into our stock of very inexperienced young players and they were not comfortable with that,” Chilton said. “I have to respect that. Whether I agree with it or not, it’s a different thing.
“I don’t want to see my kids hurt, either, but this is a far-reaching decision,” he added.
Halting the football season has serious ramifications both for Camden Hills and its future opponents.
Under MPA rules, if a school begins competition to start a sports season, but does not complete it, that school is ineligible to field a team in that sport for the next two years.
MPA Executive Director Dick Durost said Camden Hills may “request a hearing and seek a waiver of the policy, but would need to provide a convincing argument in order for the Interscholastic Management Committee to grant the waiver.”
Camden Hills was well aware of those guidelines.
“We understand that, we knew that was one of the fallouts by making that decision, but ultimately we had to make a decision for the student-athletes’ safety,” Alex said.
It has not been determined whether Camden Hills’ first three games will count, if the remaining games will be forfeits, or whether none of them will be considered in their opponents’ standing in the Crabtree Points that determine playoff seedings.
Ithomitis said the school is appreciative of the support it received from the MPA and LTC counterparts.
“The MPA and conference schools did everything they could to help us sustain our program,” he said.
“Although many people will be disappointed with our decision, we hope they understand and respect our need to protect the safety of our students,” he added.
Camden Hills played its first season of varsity football in 2009. In the state’s four-class format, it is a Class B school by enrollment, but received MPA approval to play down in Class D (and forfeit postseason eligibility) in an attempt to develop its program.
The Windjammers qualified for the playoffs in 2010, but have a 2-25 record since the start of the 2012 season.
Chilton wondered aloud whether Camden Hills might consider allowing the Windjammers to play a junior varsity season with varsity games having been canceled.
However, Alex said he already has spoken with six freshmen in an effort to help place them on other Camden Hills fall teams.
“I’ve got two joining mountain biking (Friday), two joining freshman boys soccer and two interested in joining our boys cross country team,” he said.
Alex stressed that Chilton and his staff should be commended for their efforts.
“Thad has worked incredibly hard to try to make this all work. His organizational skills, the time and the effort he’s put into this, has completely blown me away,” Alex said. “We all feel bad about what has come out, but is absolutely no fault whatsoever of Chad or his coaching staff.”
Chilton was among a handful of people who co-founded the Five Town Football Program, which has served as the developmental league for youngsters in the area that serves as the training ground for future Camden Hills players.
He is deeply concerned about the future of the high school football program.
“A lot of people have worked very hard to make [Camden Hills football] a reality and it would just be a shame to see it go away,” Chilton said.