High school football: Turners Falls suspends football program, seeks Mohawk Trail co-op

  • Turners Falls head coach Chris Lapointe and the Thunder won’t be playing games in the Powertown this fall. The school announced Thursday it was officially suspending its program due to low numbers, with the hopes of joining up with Mohawk Trail this fall if the MIAA agrees that the two schools deserve an immediate hardship cooperative waiver. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Turners Falls senior receiver Jaden Whiting (8) is one of eight players in the program who may have the opportunity to continue playing football at Mohawk Trail this fall, if the MIAA agrees that the two schools deserve an immediate hardship cooperative waiver. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Mohawk Trail quarterback Shawn Davenport (8) may have some new teammates soon. After Turners Falls announced it was suspending its football program on Thursday, the two schools are working toward forming a co-op for the upcoming 2019 season. Staff FILE Photo/Dan Little

  • Turners Falls head coach Chris Lapointe talks with quarterback Kyle Dodge (12) during action last season. The school announced Thursday it was suspending its football program for the 2019 season due to low numbers. Staff FILE PHOTO/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2019 10:29:45 PM

A decision that has long been feared became a reality on Thursday.

Turners Falls High School officially suspended its football program for the 2019 season, athletic director Adam Graves confirmed. While the Powertown knew it was going to struggle with numbers this fall, the program had just eight players on the roster during preseason camp this week.

“For me, I’ve been going to Turners football games for 35 years so this is a big loss,” explained Graves, who graduated from TFHS in 1996. “There’s been a lot of sleepless nights. Not having Turners football, it hurts me personally.”

While there’s certainly disappointment along Avenue A and beyond, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Turners fans. The school is working on an alternate solution that will still allow its players to compete this fall. Members of the Turners delegation met with Mohawk Trail Regional High School on Thursday to hash out details for a potential immediate hardship cooperative waiver that would go into effect for this season.

There are several hurdles that would need to be cleared in order for that to happen. Mohawk Trail has agreed to serve as the host school for the co-op, and the teams would play under that banner and would follow the Warriors’ game schedule. The process involves some paperwork, and the schools would need to go before a group of MIAA athletic directors the first week of September. If it is approved at that point, a review board would rule on Sept. 6, the same day that the first week of games kick off in the Bay State.

“I can’t really speculate, but we feel we are in good position for the MIAA to approve this co-op,” Mohawk Trail athletic director Greg Vouros said Thursday night, when asked how confident he was that the co-op would move forward.

The two teams will get a chance to know one another before the decision is handed down.

“Luckily for us, we’re allowed to practice together before then,” offered Graves, who informed the team of the decision Thursday night and expected players interested in joining Mohawk Trail to begin practicing on Monday. Just last year, the school formed a cooperative program with Pioneer Valley Regional School in order to sustain a program, though all eight players on this year’s roster were Turners Falls students.

As part of the cooperative agreement, the Mohawk Trail coaching staff would remain in charge with head coach Doug McCloud guiding the program. Turners head coach Chris Lapointe, who confirmed on Thursday night he would not be joining the staff in an official capacity, said the final decision for the program to suspend operations for 2019 was devastating.

“It’s sad. It’s a horrible day for me,” admitted Lapointe, a star quarterback at Turners who graduated in 1999. “I was truly honored to coach this program. It’s been a heck of a ride. It’s disappointing because you hope to build a program, be successful and carry it on. But I’m proud to have had that opportunity and work with the kids here as head coach.”

Lapointe, who was entering his 10th season as head coach, said that the team did its best marketing job between the end of last season and now, but the numbers never showed up.

“I can’t say that I didn’t look in the mirror, so to speak, and ask ‘What are we doing wrong?” he began. “At the end of the day, I still think we did it right. We tried to run a good program. It’s families making decisions that they think are best for them. But when you lose a bunch of eighth-graders to school choice, that’s when it really becomes a reality a couple weeks into June that this might not happen.

“As a former player, assistant coach and (head) coach for almost 10 seasons, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” he continued. “There’s a lot of history and tradition here.”

While Turners would be abandoning its schedule, Mohawk Trail’s 2019 slate doesn’t begin until Sept. 13 with a home game against Franklin Tech. Therefore, the programs would have a full week of preparation before playing a game if the co-op is approved.

Mohawk Trail also was on the low end with numbers, as the squad has 18 players in its program, according to Graves. The two teams last met in 2017, with Turners picking up a 27-14 victory.

“I'm confident we would have fielded a team this year; however the additional team members from Turners Falls will assure we have enough students in the rotation,” Vouros said.

The two teams became interested in one another as they dealt with similar issues.

“Sort of an ongoing conversation with them,” Graves said of the dialogue with Mohawk Trail prior to the decision. “With their numbers being what they are and what their school was looking for, we felt this was a good opportunity for both teams.”

Vouros agreed.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to co-op with Turners and welcoming their athletes to our fields at MTRS,” he said. “Our coaches are looking forward to working with their players.”

As for teams that were scheduled to play against Turners this fall, schools will have the opportunity to fill the now-vacant slots in their schedules. While some schools may not be able to do that in time for the start of the season, perhaps the biggest loss comes in the form of the Greenfield-Turners Falls Thanksgiving Day game. Greenfield athletic director and head football coach Mike Kuchieski said Thursday’s decision will mark the end of what has become a quintessential part of the holiday throughout Franklin County. The teams have played on Turkey Day since 1927, with the Green Wave holding a 61-23-8 record in the series.

“It’s a traditional rivalry and unfortunately, there won’t be a Thanksgiving Day game this year,” said Kuchieski. “It’s sad. It’s unfortunate it’s happening and it’s happening everywhere. I think a lot of people are thinking, who’s next? Everybody’s numbers are down, all over the (Pioneer) Valley.”

Losing the Thanksgiving Day showdown in November was one of the toughest parts of the decision, Lapointe said.

“It’s going to be almost like a bad dream where you wake up and it’s not there,” he explained. “I’ve only missed one Thanksgiving game my entire life, when I was coaching at Ludlow. Not to have it, with the community and everything that takes place, Thanksgiving won’t be the same. Because when you grow up in Turners, you want to play football but you want to play in that Thanksgiving game.”

Graves admitted that folding the Turners program this close to the start of the season was not ideal.

“I feel horrible for the teams that are supposed to play us because it’s so late,” he said. “We waited as long as we could but we just don’t have the kids. I wish we could keep Turners football like it is, but giving our kids a chance to play became the pressing priority.”

If the co-op is approved, the Bourdeau Fields Complex in Turners will still see at least one game this fall. The two schools agreed that Turners will still host its Booster Day game on Oct. 4, when McCann Tech will come to the Powertown to play Mohawk Trail at 7 p.m.

Turners went 8-3 overall last year, winning the Intercounty League North Division championship with a perfect 6-0 mark. Mohawk Trail, which competes in the Tri-County League, was 1-9 overall in 2018.

Graves noted in a letter distributed to the community that players from Turners Falls are playing football in large numbers, just not at TFHS.

“Our school population numbers are greatly decreasing and many students are choosing to attend other local schools,” Graves wrote. “There are close to 30 football players from Turners Falls who will suit up for other local teams this season.”

As for the future, Graves said that he and the administration will revisit the football situation at a later time with hopes that it is only a short-term issue.

“We’re worried about this year because it’s so late in the game but we really hope to have (a team) back for next year,” Graves said. “That’s something we’ll reassess down the road.”

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