MIDDLEBURY — Longtime Middlebury Union High School varsity football coach Peter Brakeley will return to the sidelines this fall and lead a Tiger squad, but will not return to the same post he left a year ago for medical reasons.
Instead, Brakeley, a cancer patient who also in January returned to his Middlebury Union Middle School teaching job after a medical leave, will take the reins of the MUHS junior varsity football team. He will replace his son, Gus Brakeley, who will assist the Middlebury College football program.
Meanwhile, interim head coach Dennis Smith, Brakeley’s longtime assistant during his 15-year tenure as the MUHS varsity football coach, will remain in charge of the varsity at least for one more season.
Brakeley said his prognosis remains positive, but that the smart choice was to avoid the all-consuming stress of coaching a varsity football season.
“This summer I’ve been progressing with my recovery, and so I thought it (the JV job) would be a way to take a little stress off,” Brakeley said, adding, “I’m feeling great, but I can’t afford to put myself in a position where I’m kind of tired out.”
Brakeley, an MUHS and Middlebury College alum, coached the MUHS varsity from 1993 to 2007. His teams won three Division I championships, most recently in 2002. Brakeley admitted the drive to win more titles could possibly compromise his recovery.
“For me the thing that really gets me pooped out is the competitive spirit. You just get excited, and sometimes you don’t get the rest you might otherwise,” he said. “When it came right down to making the decision, I realized I needed more rest, and I didn’t want to overtax my body.”
He will be joined as a co-coach in the JV program by his former offensive coordinator, MUHS teacher Carl Ciemniewski. Ciemniewski himself stepped down seven years ago from that post after doctors advised him to avoid stress.
Brakeley said he and Ciemniewski are looking forward to working together again in the less-pressurized JV environment.
“That will be fun,” he said. “We both feel good enough to give it another shot here. There’s a lot more responsibility at the varsity level.”
Brakeley said he also would enjoy teaching football to younger players, as he did this past fall when he joined a group that helped breathe new life into the town’s youth football program.
“They’ve got to learn the skills to get them up to speed to play at the varsity level,” he said. “I usually get energy from coaching and being around the young people. This will allow that to happen.”
They will also be happy to lend a helping hand to Smith and his varsity assistants, including Jon Nuceder.
“Both Carl and I are in a position to help out the varsity, yet still have our own team,” Brakeley said.
Having Smith in charge at the varsity level made Brakeley’s JV decision easier, he said, even though Smith has said all along he views his job as to hold the position until Brakeley is ready to come back.
“The program is in a good strong situation right now. Dennis will do a great job. He’s a real good coach,” Brakeley said.
DIVISION II FOOTBALL
This fall will also mark the return of MUHS football to Division II for the first time since Brakeley first took over. Low numbers in the program led to the decision by coaches and school administrators to apply to the Vermont Principals’ Association for a drop down from D-I, and the VPA last fall approved the move for the next two seasons.
Brakeley said there are about 10 seniors, 10 juniors, 20 sophomores and 40 freshmen in the program, enough for MUHS to return to field varsity, JV and freshman teams this fall after having just varsity and JV teams in 2008.
But with so little seasoning in the upper grades, he believes the move to D-II was preferable to trying to compete with much larger schools.
“Especially this year and the first half of next year, we’ll have a really inexperienced team,” Brakeley said.
But with the large freshmen class and a stronger youth program, he envisions a return to D-I in the future.
“It comes down to numbers. I’ve always figured we needed 25 freshmen a year to come out. If we can keep 25 players in a class, then that provides the numbers you need to play D-I, because you’re playing D-I schools with big rosters and big bodies,” he said. “If you can two-platoon everybody stays fresh and you can be competitive.”
In all, Brakeley feels good about the future of football at MUHS.
“I have no worries about the program going forward. And plus I’ll be there if they have any questions or to provide any guidance,” he said.
Brakeley also qualified that statement.
“That’s not to say I won’t at some point be back in the varsity business,” he said.