Syracuse, N.Y. — Jamison MacLachlan is a third-generation Jamesville-DeWitt football player, one who grew up attending games on Friday nights. He is a good athlete who is currently a freshman at Stony Brook, where he is a goalie on the lacrosse team.
Before his junior season, MacLachlan said he was approached by Jamesville-DeWitt’s soccer coach. The team, MacLachlan was told, was capable of winning a sectional title and making a run at the state championship.
But it needed depth at goalie. MacLachlan was a possible answer.
He weighed the opportunity to compete for a state title against continuing to play for a football team that he didn’t anticipate would be very good. He broke family tradition and picked soccer, then was able to play both sports as a senior due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If forced to choose as a senior, MacLachlan said he would have returned to football, relishing one more opportunity to play the sport despite last year’s one-win season and the fact that he was the only member of the school’s talented lacrosse team that suited up for football.
“We have a ton of good athletes in the school,” MacLachlan said. “Our other sports are pretty solid. But other kids, their main sport is basketball or lacrosse or baseball. They don’t want to come out for the team because they don’t want to get hurt or (they think) the team sucks. It’s not worth getting hurt for a one-win team. Those are the main excuses I hear. I mean, I get it, but we’d probably be a lot better if other kids came out.”
MacLachlan’s experience highlights some of the challenges the Jamesville-DeWitt football program must confront as it tries to rebuild from its current state, a team that has endured consecutive one-win seasons and whose numbers have dwindled so low that it decided not to field a varsity football team this year.
But it does not encompass all of the challenges.
Head coach Eric Ormund attempted to do that in 2019, when the program was forced to drop down to play an independent schedule due to a lack of players and won just a single game.
His written evaluation of the program after that season covered 31 pages. It did not find a simple cause or solution.
Jamesville-DeWitt’s decision not to field a varsity team this fall was alarming for anyone in the area who cares about high school football.
Across the country, participation numbers in the sport have dropped consistently over the past decade. That includes in Central New York. In recent years a variety of schools have been forced to form co-ops in order to field teams, have dropped down to play eight-man football or have been forced to cancel seasons.
The Red Rams, however, are one of the more prominent athletic programs in Central New York unable to field a team. The school had a strong run of success in the sport from the 1950s to the 1980s – producing alumni like former Syracuse stars and NFL players Robert Drummond and Scott Schwedes – and regularly challenges for championships in other sports.
Ormund said he does not believe this year’s cancelled season is a sign of the “death of football,” although the downward trend in participation has certainly contributed to J-D’s issues.
The school fielded just one team last year and had just over 40 players. The numbers were similar this season.
But when Ormund looked at last year’s team, he felt they were physically capable of holding up against varsity competition. With a younger group this year — which includes an unusually high number of 18 freshmen — he came to a different conclusion.
“It would have been irresponsible to put them out there against varsity competition, especially Class A teams,” Ormond said.
The hope is that the challenges posed by the pandemic pushed a team that often lives on the edge over the threshold, and the choice not to compete at the varsity level is just a one-time occurrence.
Still, things have been headed this direction over the past couple of years.
In his analysis from 2019, Ormond concluded that the junior and senior classes were abnormally small – something he chalked up mostly to an anomaly. He noted those numbers dropped even while the team was relatively successful and making playoff appearances, indicating wins and losses weren’t the primary motivation.
He concluded that his program has an acceptable retention rate, which makes this year’s freshman class a source of optimism. He believes the retention rate shows that players who join the team are having a good enough time to stick with it, but that the struggles stem from getting athletes into the pipeline out of middle school.
The challenges, he found, are multiple. Each has eaten away at the team’s depth by stealing a couple of players.
Some of the difficulties are fairly unique to Jamesville-DeWitt. The school district has, until very recently, maintained strict athletic fundraising rules that likely hurt the program compared to its peers. It also doesn’t have a Pop Warner program that can function as a direct feeder system.
Some of the challenges exist everywhere, like parents who are worried about concussions.
And some challenges exist everywhere but are likely exacerbated by the unique landscape of Jamesville-DeWitt, like the trend toward sport specialization and the competition among top-notch programs for the best athletes.
When Ormond first took over the head coaching position at Jamesville-DeWitt in 2009, he talked about the challenges, arguing that the lack of a football culture in the district – and its relatively small population compared to its Class A competitors – shouldn’t result in the school accepting being non-competitive.
A decade later, though, many of those challenges are still present. In some cases, they’ve grown worse. And the past couple of years have been largely non-competitive.
Syracuse.com spoke to four former players who played for Jamesville-DeWitt in recent years, including three who were seniors on last year’s one-win team. The most common reasons they believe their peers aren’t playing is because losing has cost the sport its customary shine and the district’s best athletes tend to specialize in something other than football.
There is evidence in some of the numbers. Ormond said the school struggles to get players to transition from the middle school to the high school program, a time when many athletes begin to pick their preferred sport.
While specialization is a growing trend across the country, it is likely exacerbated at Jamesville-DeWitt.
Given the quality of many of the school’s teams, athletes feel pressure to do offseason training to secure starting spots. The school also has a largely upper-middle-class population, so more parents are able to afford the expense of private lessons and club programs. College scholarships are coveted.
And along with the time commitment created by outside training, former football players say their peers are reluctant to take on the injury risk associated with football when they’ve made a significant investment in another sport.
“We all tried to recruit people,” said Dominick Ciccone, now a freshman at Siena. “We’d get sprints off double-sessions if we got guys to come out. But a lot of people were dedicated to one sport. They didn’t want to play football and risk getting hurt. We haven’t been that good. The lacrosse team won multiple state championships. I’ve had tough games getting blown out, but in the end, it was still fun bonding with the team and the experience of playing.”
The former players say Ormond frequently shows that he cares about them and treats them appropriately – Ciccone called him the favorite coach he’d ever had – and none said they believe he should bear the majority of the blame for the program’s slide.
Still, as you’d expect from a team that has struggled to win games, there were complaints about strategy (limited and conservative playbook), practice planning (players wanted more contact to prepare) and squandered talent.
In many high schools, a high level of interest in football is presumed.
At Jamesville-DeWitt, Ormond says the various challenges have left him needing to find ways to build interest and he has a binder of things that he has tried over the years.
He said he has looked at what schools like Cicero-North Syracuse and Skaneateles have done to build interest in their programs, which were not always as successful as they are today.
Those schools, he believes, benefit from booster clubs that have done an exceptional job fundraising around football. They have purchased extra amenities that appeal to teenagers, swaying kids on the fence to participate and ensuring that football is a status symbol at the school.
Ormond lives in the Cicero-North Syracuse district, where he says the booster club’s investment in buying an array of uniform options, along with the development of a winning program, has created a mystique about playing for the Northstars.
That’s been a challenge at Jamesville-DeWitt where, until recently, booster contributions went toward a general fund rather than a sport-specific account.
Ormund didn’t take major issue with the policy. He believes it is philosophically spot-on, part of a well-meaning attempt by the district to ensure equity among teams and genders.
Still, he believes it put the football team at a disadvantage compared to other schools and is planning to take advantage of a recent change that will permit him to raise money directly for his program.
Ormond said the change went into effect shortly before the pandemic. He used fundraising money to buy 15 Nike Elite warm-ups, providing them as a reward to the athletes who were most dedicated during the offseason. A second fundraiser centered around March Madness, but wound up losing $60 when the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
With pandemic restrictions lightening he hopes to return to that effort, rewarding players with things that make them feel valued, as well as buying food that will increase attendance at offseason workouts, meetings and expand on the team’s monthly pizza outings.
These feelings and gatherings, he believes, contribute to building the commitment and relationships that make a program successful, forging bonds that will last through the challenge of the sport, regardless of the team’s result,.
“I don’t want to go out and raise $100,000,” Ormond said. “I have some deep philosophical opposition to that, given what our mission (as educators) is. … I do want to build a culture where there is no inherent football culture in the Jamesville-DeWitt community.”
Ryan Clewis, now a freshman at Pepperdine, said his parents encouraged him to try cross country due to concerns about injuries. His father broke his shoulder playing football. He didn’t want his son to have that same experience. They relented a year later when he was in eighth grade and still wanted to play football.
He suggested that his generation tends to be “softer” and less likely to give football a try, a leaning encouraged by parents.
All four of the players who spoke with syracuse.com agreed that Ormond doesn’t shout or scream excessively but, like most football coaches, they said he does raise his voice toward players when they make repeated mistakes.
Clewis said his generation might balk at that approach, and he suspected that could be more true of students from upper-middle-class families.
Clewis said that in his four years on the team, his teammates often groused that they might not return to play the next year. The sport is physically demanding. It requires dedication to offseason strength training and attendance at double practices before the school year.
Still, he said, players generally returned out of loyalty to the coaches and each other. The payoff, he said, came in the off-field moments and bonds built.
Ciccone said his favorite part of playing was the camaraderie created through team meals. For Mike Schwedes, who graduated in 2016, it was the opportunity to expand his horizons by playing with teammates from different backgrounds. Schwedes went on to play college lacrosse but still considers high school football among his athletic highlights.
“Football was the greatest decision I made in high school,” Ciccone said. “The brotherhood and family. Team dinners before games. The bonding. It was a great experience. With Covid, we couldn’t really have a student section. I think that’s a big thing in high school, going into school with your jersey, having a good amount of the school come out for a big home game. I feel bad for all the seniors this year that were ready to lead the team now.”
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