Under Dave Mastroianni’s watch, Daniel Hand has remained one of the state’s upper echelon programs. He’s guided the Tigers to Class L titles in each of his two seasons since replacing the legendary Steve Filippone.
Yet, participation in his program is expected to drop this fall.
“In 2011 to 2012, we had 70 kids in (grades) 10 through 12. With the freshmen, we had almost 100 kids in the program,” Mastroianni, a component of the program since 2007, recalled Thursday. “Now, we’ve got 40-something kids in 10 to 12 and another 20 to 25 as freshmen.”
Knowing that concern about injuries is mostly to blame for these reduced numbers, Mastroianni is on board with the CIAC’s latest plans to make high school football safer. Starting next season, teams will be forced to cut down the time they spend on contact drills in practice from 90 minutes to 45 minutes each week, as first reported by the Hartford Courant.
“Somebody’s going to entrust me with their son in a sport that involves my son and your son eventually running into each other at a high rate of speed,” Mastroianni said, “I want somebody to be able to look me in the eye and say, ‘Look, I’m doing everything I can through best practices and providing the right equipment … to take care of your son like he was my own.’
“I think this is very much a step in the right direction of being able to honestly look parents in the eye and say, ‘OK, I’m taking care of your kid, why now is he not playing football?’ ”
Participation has declined not just at Daniel Hand, but across the state. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 9,241 students (144 schools) played high school football in 2017, compared to 10,815 (147 schools) in 2009 and 9,521 (129 schools) in 1981.
Mastroianni doesn’t think the new rules will dramatically impact his team, mainly because he had already taken steps to limit contact in practice. He believes most coaches will agree.
“There’s really not much need for tackling to the ground anymore, especially in-season,” Mastroianni said. “(Former NFL and UConn coach) Paul Pasqualoni, I heard him talking about tackling one time, and he said that you shouldn’t be doing any drills in full pads that you couldn’t be doing in no pads. I think everybody’s kind of adopted that mantra anyway.”
Tom Brockett, who has taken Ansonia to the state finals in eight of the last nine seasons, called the new rule a “non-factor,” adding that a majority of coaches didn’t use the full 90 minutes to begin with.
“It depends on the time of the year and different things, but it’s never a lot, especially in one given day,” he said. “I think the important thing people realize is we still do need some time to have contact.”
Brockett, who is a member of the football committee, said coaches have tried to be “proactive” with the rule change. A few states had already implemented rules reducing contact in practice, with New Jersey being among the most drastic (15 minutes per week in-season).
“With the way the game is, for lack of a better term, being unfairly attacked right now, I think it’s great to show people we’re doing everything we can right now. We’re not beating your kids up,” Mastroianni said. “Gone are your father’s days and your grandfather’s days of football where it was the Junction Boy mentality, and you’re going to be out there for 10 hours in August and you’re not getting any water and we’re going to give you salt tablets. You’re going to smash each other into the ground until our toughest 11 are standing.
“You don’t define toughness like that anymore.”