WINOOSKI, Vt. — The Winooski High School football team returns at least a dozen starters, an ample amount of varsity experience most Division III programs would take.
From a trio of running of backs, both quarterbacks and most of the offensive line to a couple linebackers and defensive linemen plus the entire secondary, the Spartans have a core group that, at the very least, brings continuity and cohesiveness.
Problem is, the same players running the offense are also making tackles on the other side of the ball.
Fifth-year Winooski head coach Josh Safran welcomed 16 players to Monday’s practices, the first day of preseason for the 33 football programs in Vermont — officially kicking off the fall season. Soccer, field hockey and cross country begin their preseason sessions Thursday.
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At Winooski, the numbers game will likely be a constant theme throughout the season. No ninth graders reported to camp yet, and two seniors, Kevin Pham and Kyle Bigelow, said they went door-to-door trying to recruit players (it worked, too; one student showed interest).
“We’ve done everything we can to try and expand our roster, but the good news is, of the 16, 12 of them went to summer workouts and are in really good shape,” Safran said. “They are fit, football-ready — they just aren’t going to get a break. They are going to play offense, defense and special teams.”
Added Bigelow: “Last year we pretty much played both sides of the ball anyways, so it’s nothing we are not used to.”
Program vitality in the lower divisions was an issue last year.
Montpelier faced participation and safety concerns and was forced to forfeit two games. Springfield canceled its remaining varsity contests just weeks into the season and finished by playing a JV schedule.
In the offseason, Montpelier asked to switch to a JV-only schedule for at least one season, but last week, it announced that planned was shelved. Springfield returned to varsity status after realignments moved the program from D-II to D-III.
Safran doesn’t foresee a similar path for his Spartans, despite his lowest numbers as coach.
“I’m not putting out kids who are not ready, so that part I feel we can safely go forward, but football is an attrition thing,” said Safran, who expects a better turnout with next year’s freshman class. “We will play. I think that’s a Winooski thing. I told the kids, ‘If we have 11 to start the game, we’ll play and if we go to 10 and the refs will still let us play, we’ll play with 10.’”
Pham, one of the team’s quarterbacks, wants to continue Winooski’s football tradition.
“The community really likes the football team here … you have to toughen up and take one play at a time,” Pham said. “We have to do whatever it takes to keep this team going. We don’t want it to stop with us.”
Early morning workouts this summer — “we were flipping tires at 6 a.m.,” Bigelow said — are part of the preparation for what lies ahead this fall: Plenty of snaps, offensively and defensively, in a tough slate of league contests, plus a nondivisional showdown looming vs. Milton on homecoming.
“They are confident in their fitness level, confident in their ability and they just have a senior swagger to them,” Safran said. “On their watch, they are not going to let this team fold.”
Last December, the next two-year alignment cycle was approved, shaking up the divisions prior to the start of this season.
With the success of the expanded Division I playoffs from the previous cycle, Division III will now showcase an additional playoff round. While D-I and D-III will host eight-team postseasons, Division II, with its eight members, remains a four-team field.
Here’s how the divisions are set for the next two seasons:
Division I: BFA-St. Albans, Brattleboro, Burlington, Champlain Valley, Colchester, Essex, Hartford, Middlebury, Mount Anthony, Mount Mansfield, Rutland, South Burlington, St. Johnsbury
Division II: Bellows Falls, Burr and Burton, Fair Haven, Lyndon, Milton, North Country, Rice, Spaulding
Division III: BFA-Fairfax, Mill River, Mount Abraham, Mount St. Joseph, Otter Valley, Oxbow, Poultney, Springfield, Windsor, Winooski, Woodstock, U-32
Coaches start anew: Of the 33 programs in Vermont, five of them had a new leader start his era Monday. St. Johnsbury’s Rich Alerico, Windsor’s Greg Balch, Brattleboro’s John Callahan, Spaulding’s Tyler Holcomb and Woodstock’s Ramsey Worrell are first-year head coaches with their respective teams. ... Title-game tripleheader switch: With Castleton State College playing a home game Nov. 9, the tripleheader championship has been tentatively switched to Rutland High School, VPA associate director Bob Johnson said. Castleton served as site host in 2010 and 2011; South Burlington had it last year.