BRISTOL — Last fall, an injury-riddled Mount Abraham Union High School football team finished a winless season by dressing just two dozen players for its final game, a number that including freshmen who Coach Ernie Senecal didn’t want to throw into the breach. About a dozen athletes who started the season on the roster couldn’t play.
Times have changed: Over the winter, the Mount Abe and Vergennes Union High School boards approved the state’s first cooperative football program.
Now the cavalry may have arrived: Last week about two dozen VUHS athletes showed up for the first week of Eagle football practices, including four Commodores who played for Winooski a year ago under a school-to-school agreement.
Last week, when Senecal counted heads, he reached 56. The value of those increased numbers almost cannot be overstated.
To start with, Senecal said the numbers should translate into fewer injuries and, with any luck, more wins.
“I think we’ll avoid, I hope we will avoid, the injuries that we have suffered the last few years that kind of decimated our depth,” he said. “And with a bigger pool of athletes you get better athletes, so our quality of play is going to improve as well.”
One key reason injuries should decline is that fewer athletes will have to play regularly on both offense and defense — to go both ways, in football parlance.
“Now, if a player goes both ways, it’s because he is an exemplary player and he can do that. He can handle going both ways. Whereas in the past players were going both ways out of necessity, and that’s a huge difference,” Senecal said. “Especially on the line ... those guys get worn down, and they’re a lot more prone to injuries.”
The numbers will also allow Mount Abe to field a JV team this fall, something Senecal calls critical for the development of the program’s younger players by giving them invaluable game experience, and making practice time more useful.
“If you only have a varsity team, those kids get very limited snaps during a game,” Senecal said. “And while they practice up with the varsity, sometimes that’s not all that beneficial. They get pounded on ... and then your upperclassmen find it a little easy going against your younger kids and it doesn’t really help them, either.”
Having more depth will help in obvious ways, such as by keeping the team fresher in the second halves of games, Senecal said, but also in subtler ways. More numbers means healthier competition for starting jobs, and that competition makes for a better team, he believes.
“In the past, when you know you’re going to be out on the field ... I think the tendency is just not to work as hard as you should,” he said. “I think what some of these kids are finding is you’ve got to put some effort into it. Having greater numbers has kind of raised the competition within ourselves a little bit.”
Of course, three of the new athletes — senior linemen Aaron Desabrais and Ryan Putnam and junior running back/linebacker Geoffrey Grant — also either started or saw major minutes for Winooski last fall, and they will join what Senecal calls a good nucleus.
“They’re going to make an impact. They’re certainly going to step right in and help us,” Senecal said.
Of course, if integrating two dozen new players — who are about evenly split by position and grade level — into a program did not go smoothly, all bets might be off. But at least in the first week of practice, Senecal said he couldn’t have asked for more.
“It’s about the best that you could hope for. I’ve seen absolutely no pettiness or cliques or anything like that,” Senecal said. “And, you know, these kids know each other quite a bit, anyway ... They play Babe Ruth baseball together, they play on all-star teams, they play AAU, a lot of them, and they just know each other.”
The leaders coming back to the Mount Abe team have also made sure the VUHS contingent is welcome, he said.
“We have some pretty good seniors in this group ... They’ve kind of taken the lead of getting things meshing, like in the locker room. You don’t have all the Vergennes kids down in one corner. Everybody’s interspersed,” Senecal said. “Morale-wise, I think we’re in really great shape.”
Even with the late-season defection of two program assistants last fall, Mount Abe is also entering this season with more coaches than ever. Former Eagle football standouts Eric Hartman and Matt Senecal have signed on to help, as has Vergennes-area football catalyst Lee Hodsden; they will operate the JV team and each have specific varsity responsibilities.
Line coach Kevin Brown returns, and Mount Abe physical education teacher Mike Crane has also joined the coaching staff. Senecal said the athletes have been listening to them.
“They’re getting more direction, and they’ve been soaking stuff up,” he said. “What we have this year is a lot of pliant minds ... They’ve been real receptive to what we say technique-wise and scheme-wise.”
While on the JV level there are more backs, on the varsity most of the impact athletes will be on the line, Senecal said.
“There are a lot of big kids. The biggest impact I’ve seen is the depth on the line. We’ve had some pretty spirited practices,” he said.
Senecal plans to retain the Eagles’ spread offense, but said an improved offensive line should allow the Eagles to establish a running game, and thus also pass more effectively.
“It does spread the defense out,” he said. “It’s not a bad running offense, either.”
Last fall, the lack of linemen also led Senecal to use a 3-5 formation on defense that emphasized linebackers. This year, the Eagles will deploy four down linemen.
“I’m a 4-3 guy, and we’ll run a 4-3 this year. We’ve got some decent linemen,” he said.
In all, the cooperative agreement between Mount Abe and VUHS and the two dozen new players are helping Senecal feel optimistic about the season.
“Honestly, it’s like the perfect storm to turn our fortunes around here. One, I have a coaching staff that I think is probably the best coaching staff Mount Abe has ever had ... Two, the influx of kids from Vergennes has given us depth and more quality athletes; and three, last year we played a lot of sophomores and juniors that had very little experience from the previous year,” Senecal said. “And those kids were outmanned for the most part. But they’ve grown up.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.