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Vol. LXIV, No. 23
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
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THROWN FOR A LOSS: A Princeton Day School football running back gets tackled in a 2009 game. Last week, the PDS players suffered a big hit collectively as the school decided to discontinue the varsity football program.

Citing Dwindling Numbers, Injury Concerns, PDS Decides to Drop Varsity Football Program

Bill Alden

For the Princeton Day School, it became fourth down and long last week for the school’s football program and the decision has been made to punt.

After months of review, Head of School Paul Stellato announced last Friday that PDS will no longer offer varsity football as of this fall.

In explaining the move, Stellato said it came down to two main factors — a dwindling number of players and safety concerns for those left.

Noting that the 2009 team started the season with just 24 players, 12 of whom were seniors, Stellato said the school tried to beef up the squad.

“We have made a concerted effort on two fronts,” said Stellato. “We combed our community for guys with football in their background or who were sitting out the fall but could play. We kept our eyes out in admissions for kids who expressed interest in football. We held information sessions this spring and we never had more than 18 kids. It is hard to change fortunes in football; you can do it in basketball with one or two players but you need more in football.”

The lack of manpower sparked concern for the safety of the players. “With those kind of numbers, our players are at a physical disadvantage on the field,” asserted Stellato. “You can get through that in other sports but not in football.”

Stellato had no qualms with the quality of the effort put in by the players.

“I want to make it clear this was not a referendum on these kids or that we had lost faith in these kids,” said Stellato, noting that the Panthers won three games in 2009 after winning just one the season before. “They played with toughness and courage.”

As a result, Stellato had the tough task of informing the players last week that the program was being dropped.

“I talked to the kids on Thursday morning,” said Stellato, who sent a letter to the members of the PDS community the next day advising them of the decision and the underlying rationale.

“I think there were nine or 10 kids at the meeting. They behaved like gentlemen. We have bright and astute kids; they would love for the program to continue but they understand why we are making this decision. They appreciated the time and effort put into this and that I told them face to face.”

PDS head coach Rick Mabes felt blind-sided by the decision. “It still hasn’t sunk in,” said Mabes, the head coach for the last two seasons and an assistant with the program for six seasons before that. “I am still in shock and hoping I will get a call to say it is all a mistake.”

In Mabes’ view, it would have made sense to wait until the preseason camp to gauge the true level of interest.

“I would have liked to see us start the season and see how many kids came out then,” said Mabes, noting that three rising seniors were being recruited by college football programs and will not be able to bolster their chances with film from the 2010 season. “The kids can be busy in the spring and they don’t always show up at the information meetings.”

While acknowledging that the ranks thinned out last fall as the season went on, Mabes believed the program was heading in the right direction.

“Last year we won three games, improving from winning one the season before,” said Mabes, noting that the Panthers went 7-1 in 2005 and 6-3 in 2007.

“The schedule for this fall was much more fitting and more adaptable. I think we would have kept improving.”

In reflecting on his time with the program, Mabes said a main highlight for him was learning how he impacted his players on and off the field.

“Just having kids coming up after they graduate and saying now they know what I mean about football and its life lessons and how it prepares you for things down the road is great,” said Mabes.

Stellato, for his part, has also received some feedback from former PDS football players over the last week.

“A lot of alums have been in touch,” said Stellato, noting that PDS plans to continue its middle school football team and can revisit the decision to drop the varsity program if there is concrete evidence in the future of increased interest and numbers.

“They told me in retrospect that they don’t know how they did what they did with the numbers. They respect that this is a tough decision.”

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