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Oxbow High Suspends Varsity Football for 2017

  • Oxbow football line coach Eric Johnson runs drills with his players on Aug. 16, 2017, in Bradford, Vt. Officials have decided to drop the varsity program this fall due to lower participation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Oxbow head football coach Dan Nolan works with the team during practice in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 16, 2017. Officials have decided to drop the varsity program this fall due to lower participation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Oxbow football player Sullivan French pumps up teammate Copper Simmons' helmet during a practice on Aug. 16, 2017, in Bradford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2017

Bradford, Vt. — Due to an unexpectedly small and youthful roster, the Oxbow High School football program has dropped its varsity schedule for the coming season. The school made the decision official on Friday.

Oxbow saw 14 players turn out for the start of preseason practice last week, fewer than athletic director Brianne Barnes and first-year coach Dan Nolan had expected.

“Ten or 11 are freshmen and sophomores. We ended up with only one senior,” Barnes said. “With such a young squad, we have player safety in mind. It’s in the program’s best interest to take this step and build the program back up.”

Barnes cited healthy youth-level numbers in Bradford and said she is hopeful for a return to varsity status next season. The Olympians debuted as a club program in 2005 and went full varsity in Vermont Division III in 2007.

They compiled a record of 35-54 over the last 10 seasons, finishing .500 or better four times and going 0-5 in postseason play. Oxbow’s first playoff berth came in 2010, losing to Bellows Falls in the Vermont Division III semifinals. It was ousted by Woodstock in the quarters in 2013, ’15 and ’16.

The Olympians had two coaches during their first 10 years: Mark Palmieri (2007-13) and Sean Murphy (2014-16), both of whom live and work in the St. Johnsbury, Vt., area. Murphy is the dorm proctor at St. Johnsbury Academy, while Palmieri went on to become coach at Lyndon Institute (since departed).

The Oxbow football program’s connection to the Northeast Kingdom continued with the hiring of Nolan, a West Burke, Vt., resident who previously coached at Lyndon.

Nolan did not immediately return messages seeking comment about the program’s move to a junior varsity schedule. Barnes indicated she expected Nolan to remain the team’s coach despite a change neither the AD nor coach anticipated.

Oxbow began with 22 players last season, and attrition dwindled that number to 18 by the time the Olympians were dealt a 58-0 loss at Woodstock in last year’s playoffs. Barnes expected a similar turnout this season based on an end-of-year meeting last spring.

“We thought we’d be looking right around 22 again. I’m not sure why it ended up being lower,” said Barnes.

Oxbow in the past has carried players from nearby Blue Mountain Union High and Rivendell Academy — neither of which fields its own football team — through the VPA’s member-to-member program. Thetford Academy students also would be welcome to play football at Oxbow, Barnes said.

Dametres Perry, Oxbow’s starting quarterback last season before getting injured, graduated from Rivendell last spring. Two rising Rivendell seniors, lineman Will Usler and receiver Owen Pelletier, elected not to return, Barnes said.

Pelletier was second among all Upper Valley receivers last season with 594 yards and eight TDs.

Barnes began working with Sean Farrell, Middlebury Union High athletic director and chairman of the Vermont Principals Association’s football committee, on Friday to begin establishing a JV schedule.

It could be challenging, especially since some programs, such as Missisquoi Valley Union, might go the other route and field varsity-only teams this year due to lack of sufficient numbers to field two teams. Winooski, another previous regular Oxbow opponent, dropped football altogether prior to last season.

“They might have to look to the south because a lot of the (D-III) northern teams already have full JV schedules,” Farrell said on Friday in a phone interview. “Some of the northern programs that might have openings are bigger schools that I’m not sure Oxbow would be interested in playing — (BFA) St. Albans, Burlington, Colchester and Lyndon, to name a few.”

The Olympians’ previously scheduled varsity opponents could have similar challenges trying to replace the newly created scheduling voids. Oxbow was scheduled to open on Sept. 1 at Woodstock and play two more road games before its home opener against Windsor on Sept. 23.

“A lot of them will probably have to go out of state (to find replacement opponents) or play eight games instead of nine,” Farrell said. “Most teams don’t want that bye week.”

While no formal evaluation of VPA football participation has recently been sanctioned, associate executive director Bob Johnson said it’s clear numbers are generally trending downward. Lower overall enrollments in recent years have meant fewer athletes to draw from, while numerous medical studies connecting football to long-term brain conditions such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have exacerbated the issue.

“A lot of teams that used to get 50-60 kids every year are now probably getting 30-40, and I think it’s for a lot of reasons,” Johnson said. “Public school enrollment has been declining for the last 10 years, not just in Vermont, but nationally.

“Are safety issues regarding concussions and CTE also part of it? I think the answer is yes, it’s making an impact. It used to not be very uncommon that someone didn’t play football until freshman year. Now I think it’s becoming more and more rare to have kids play in high school who weren’t introduced to the game at the youth level.”

Barnes acknowledged that the head-trauma issue is one that weighs on any AD overseeing a football program.

“Even programs like Hanover are having numbers issues. ... It is concerning. It’s definitely something that’s on my mind,” Barnes said.

However, Barnes emphasized that she expects Oxbow football to return to varsity status beginning next season. The Bradford Bulldogs youth football program suits a total of more than 60 kids in grades 3-8, she noted.

“That’s a good sign that it’s still a growing sport in this community,” she said. “It’s a little disappointing that there will be no varsity team this year, but looking forward there is great talent coming up. Being JV this year should give our core group (of high school players) the opportunity to continuing to develop their skills and strength. I think we’re all looking forward to next year and focusing on building teamwork, skills (and) camaraderie this year.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.