All Jo-El Hutchinson wanted was an opportunity to continue playing football.
For he and his Whitney Tech teammates, that wasn’t a foregone conclusion for this season. Last fall, Whitney Tech was in a co-op with New Haven schools Creed and Career. Once Creed, the hosting school, closed at the end of the school year, Whitney Tech had to find another place to play.
“I was scared I wouldn’t be playing football,” Hutchinson said.
It took some time looking at other teams in its league — the Connecticut Technical Conference — but Whitney Tech was able to hook up with an existing co-op of Vinal Tech and Goodwin Tech.
Part of that commitment is the travel from the Hamden-based Whitney Tech to Middletown each day for practice (Vinal Tech is the host school). But Hutchinson and the seven underclassmen have made that commitment to be at practice each day and get ready for the co-op’s season opener on Sept. 14 against Abbott Tech/Immaculate.
“It’s a big commitment. It takes a lot of dedication. I told them at the initial meeting, ‘If we do this for you, you have to make a commitment. You love the sport of football. This is your opp to play,’” head coach Joe Cefaratti said.
Brandon McCormick was the coach of the Creed co-op the three years it was together. “The coaches and put a lot of heart and soul into the program and the kids did too,” said McCormick, now a volunteer assistant at Wilbur Cross. “If we taught them anything in football, when bad things happen, you fight your way through it. The kids will come out on top in the end.”
McCormick said there were between 25-30 kids who were not seniors on the team last season. According to Wilbur Cross coach John Acquavita — who won four state championships when the Creed program was known as Hyde — said he has five kids (Arman Hyslop, Jyhel Varno, Da’Sean Lockwood, Xavier Murrell and Julian Butcher-Scott) from the co-op on his roster.
Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle said there were three (Willie Gulley, Ta’Quan Hansberry and Jordan Wise) who came over. Those eight players transferred based on what school’s district they live in.
The rest either stopped playing football or attend Career — and those kids don’t have the opportunity to continue their football careers. New Haven Public Schools Director of Athletics Erik Patchkofsky said this affected six from Career who played last season.
“For some kids to not get a chance to play their final year bothers me more than anything,” McCormick said.
“We wanted to make sure all the kids landed on their feet,” Patchkofsky said. “My only regret in the whole thing was not being able to get a waiver for the Career football players to be able to continue playing at either Hillhouse or Cross.”
Patchkosky said he reached out to the CIAC when the possibility of Creed closing started to become a reality. He found out anyone who would attend either Hillhouse or Cross — or one of the city’s alternative schools — would be able to play right away. Normally, if someone transfers to another school, they must sit out half of the regular season.
“By our rules, the transfer rule is waived (when a school closes) for a player who wishes to return back to their home school,” Gregg Simon, the CIAC’s associate executive director said. “So those kids have that option to do that without penalty.”
Career, a magnet school, offers fall sports. For that reason, those kids would not be allowed to play unless they either transferred or if Career was able to find another school to co-op with.
That latter scenario didn’t happen and to be the host school costs money — not something the city of New Haven could afford while dealing with a huge budget deficit.
“Career has other teams and other sports they offer. Those student-athletes are not permitted to go play another sport at another high school,” Simon said. “Neither Whitney nor Career wished to be the host school (for a co-op).
“I spoke to many parents and student-athletes from Career. We feel terribly for them, but we have rules and we have to apply those rules in this situation. I told them they would not be able to return to their home schools. I said to each them, ‘Please make whatever decision you make based on academics and what’s the best school for your son.’ Everyone said they loved Career.”
Simon also noted that its the member schools that set the rules — the CIAC just enforces them.
“The CIAC is a member school-driven organization,: Simon said. “Our member schools set our rules and we abide by them. If our member schools wanted to change that rule, it’s in their power to do so.”
Hutchinson could have attended Hillhouse, but he goes to Whitney Tech because of the programs the school offers so he can one day become a civil engineer. But he also wants to continue playing football in college.
Cefaratti, also the athletic director at Vinal Tech, found out the situation at the CTC meeting from Whitney Tech athletic director Eva Esposito. Cefaratti said he conferred with Simon on options.
Cefaratti said the CTC looked at Whitney partnering up with both O’Brien Tech and Platt Tech. But both programs had too many players. In other words, if a single program has more than 32 players, or more than 25 for the final three years of high school, they cannot form a co-op.
“It is very cut and dry also very fair. If the numbers go over, we put the co-op in a phase-out period (one or two years),” Simon said. But with East Hampton leaving both Vinal and Goodwin to join in a co-op with Coginchaug, that left a place for Whitney.
“He wanted to make this work also,” Cefaratti said about Simon, who he worked with on the entire process. The CIAC will re-evaluate the co-op after two years to make sure the numbers are still not over the limit.
That left Vinal Tech to provide the daily transportation: an assistant football coach comes to pick the kids up at Whitney for every practice.
“I feel like this is an opportunity, so I’m just going to do my best, work hard,” said Hutchinson, who Cefaratti said starts at both tackle and defensive end. “I try to be like a leader. We are all excited about getting another chance to play football.”
Said Cefaratti: “On the first day of practice (Aug. 13), all of the kids met in our gym. I was amazed that both the Vinal and Goodwin kids got off the bleachers to introduce themselves. After that first day, you would not know the kids were from three different schools. The camaraderie is unbelievable.”