The small Eastern Connecticut Conference football programs have never hidden their distaste for playing Norwich Free Academy.
The enrollment disparity between the league’s small schools and NFA is, by far, the biggest reason why the league has nearly fallen apart over the last few years.
On Saturday, Stonington coach A.J. Massengale made, perhaps, the loudest vocal stand against playing their Class LL neighbors when he intentionally had his team take knees to finish out a 35-0 loss to the Wildcats.
Declaring he no longer wished his players to suffer any more contact in the name of safety, the Bears began kneeling with 5 minutes and 29 seconds remaining in a 29-0 game, according reports from the Westerly (R.I.) Sun and Norwich Bulletin.
The Bears trailed 7-0 at halftime and it was 10-0 in the third quarter before an interception return touchdown led to a 17-0 lead later in the quarter. When Stonington’s kneel-downs began at 29-0, NFA scored one more time with its reserves for the final margin.
“We should never be put in this situation and we will never again be put in this situation,” Massengale told Larry Kelly of the Sun and Jimmy Zanor of the Norwich Bulletin. “It’s not our job to fill out NFA’s schedule. What a wasted opportunity. We could be playing against a great team of our size, instead I’m taking my 29 kids and putting their safety at issue against a big school that has three platoons of offense, defense and special teams.”
NFA which draws from Norwich and a half-dozen surrounding towns in Eastern Connecticut, has the state’s fourth-largest largest boys enrollment of 1,134, according to figures from the CIAC.
Only Danbury (1,568), Greenwich (1,357) and New Britain (1,245) are larger.
Stonington, meanwhile, is currently a Class S school with 342 boys enrollment, though it has sometimes competed in Class M. They are classified as an ECC Division II team and are the smallest school on NFA’s schedule.
There’s been an uprising by the ECC’s small schools against playing NFA and some of the other larger ECC schools like East Lyme, Fitch and New London.
So much, in fact, that the league almost disbanded two years ago over scheduling and the league has realigned almost annually in an attempt to smooth over the differences.
And it’s not just in football. Last year, the league created separate large- and small-school basketball tournaments in response to complaints about enrollment disparity.
The latest football compromise was in 2015. The league created a three division set up with the largest and/or most powerful programs, including Fitch, East Lyme, New London and NFA and Ledyard (despite being a Class S school this year) were placed in Division I.
The others were folded into a Division II and Division III. The Division III teams — Griswold, Windham, Plainfield and Killingly — were not forced to play the Division I schools.
The Division II schools, including Stonington, Montville, Bacon Academy and Waterford, were required to play two crossover games with the Division I schools.
Because of this, the ECC could only guarantee six league games for the Division I programs, which ultimately led to a crossover arrangement with the SCC and SWC.
NFA (3-3) has played three Class LL SCC schools in Cheshire, Xavier and West Haven this season, going 1-2. They play Class L CCC school Windsor on Nov. 16.
Yet, Massengale’s comments suggest even one crossover is a bridge too far for the Division II ECC programs.
“I’m perfectly OK with my kids being very upset with me right now,” Massengale told Zanor. “I don’t expect them to understand it and I totally understand why they’re upset. But my number one priority is their safety and at that point it was no longer a situation I felt comfortable continuing to hand the ball off to somebody and just hope the sophomore that is put in, that’s never played a varsity down, makes his block against their varsity.
“That’s irresponsible and I’m just not going to do that. Honestly, I could care less what anybody thinks about it because my number one priority is my players and their safety.”
NFA, which played for Class LL titles in 2012 and 2014, has gone 48-9 against the current ECC Division II and Division III schools since 2004.
Griswold, a Class S school with 281 boys, has had the most success, going 3-5.
Stonington is 1-5 against NFA in six meetings dating back to 2010. Their only win was a 22-21 triumph in 2011.
“I might get in trouble saying this, but we shouldn’t play NFA,” Massengale told the Sun. “Football is under assault and we’re trying to make the game safer. This isn’t making it safer.”
This year’s ECC scheduling meeting should be… fun!
Norwich Bulletin: Jimmy Zanor – It’s time to say ‘no mas’ to this football game