It was evident in June that the Bellarmine-Jefferson High football program was in trouble. With new Coach Lance Fauria on the job for just one month and the team suffering from a low turnout, Bell-Jeff didn't participate in spring practices.
At the time, Fauria, also the school's athletic director, was already concerned about the Guards' low numbers and prospects for the 2013 season. It was then that the Bell-Jeff administration and its coach should have resigned themselves to the fact that being able to safely field a competitive team was not going to be possible this season. It is at that point that they should have shut down the season and canceled all of Bell-Jeff's games.
But that was not what happened. Instead, Bell-Jeff Principal Michael Stumph and Fauria moved forward on a season that ended up in shambles last week when the school canceled the team's final three games. In the process, the safety of young players was put at risk, the Guards were saddled with three lopsided losses on the field and the program is now worse off because of the decisions of Stumph and Fauria.
It also hurt the program that the principal and coach didn't get ahead of the situation from the start. Instead of tackling the problems head-on, the two weren't upfront about the difficulties within the program. When contacted last week when information of Bell-Jeff shutting down the remainder of the season came to light, Stumph didn't return calls and Fauria said he had nothing to say about the situation and would prefer to talk about it at a later date.
Fauria sent out a press release announcing a cancellation of one of the Guards' games earlier in the campaign and another on Saturday detailing the scrapping of the remainder of the season.
That was definitely the wrong way to deal with a struggling program.
Nearby Flintridge Prep dealt with similar struggles during the 2011 season, but it handled it very differently. During the campaign, low numbers forced the Rebels to cancel a number of games. But unlike Bell-Jeff, Prep Coach Antonio Harrison and the school's principal dealt with the situation with openness and candor, and didn't try to hide what the program was going through.
Just one year removed from that struggling season, Flintridge Prepenjoyed success during the 2012 campaign, which included going 6-5, finishing second in the Prep League, notching its first winning season since 2007 and winning its first playoff game since 2003.
Bell-Jeff could learn something from the way Flintridge Prep handled its business.
The writing was on the wall early in the preseason that the Guards were just not going to have enough players to move forward and field a comprehensive squad. For most of the season, Bell-Jeff's numbers were in the teens and sometimes the number dipped below that because of injuries and grade problems. Due to injuries, for a stretch in a Santa Fe League game against St. Monica on Oct. 12, Bell-Jeff had a team of just 10 players on the field, one below the allotted 11.
Not only were the low numbers a hindrance for the Guards in games, it was detrimental for the program when it came to practices. With numbers that low, there is just no way a team can learn football fundamentals in practice because there are just not enough athletes to go up against. There were also complaints by parents of Bell-Jeff players that the athletes didn't even get to use blocking pads or sleighs during practice. Another complaint was that the players didn't watch game films.
When it was clear Bell-Jeff just wasn't going to have enough players to field a team, Fauria said he went recruiting on campus to try and find guys to fill out the squad. He took some boys from other sports and others from physical education classes, some of whom had never played organized football. What resulted was a patch-work team that included individuals who had no idea what it requires to be a football player.
Anyone who has played organized tackle football knows it's something you just don't pick up on the fly. Proper techniques like how to tackle, how to absorb a tackle and how to block often take months and even years to perfect. Football is just a different animal. You can take an individual who has never run cross-county and put him on the course and the risk of injury would probably be minimal. Or you can take an individual who has never picked up a golf club and put him on the course and he's likely going to finish his round unscathed. Unlike most other sports, the risk of injury in football is always there, no matter how hard a player trains. That's why it's imperative a player lower his risk with proper technique and drilling.
In the wake of concussion concerns surrounding all aspects of football recently, Bell-Jeff had players on the field who were definitely at an additional risk of injury. And Bell-Jeff players did suffer their share of injuries during the shortened season.
It just amazes me that Fauria and Stumph would take that risk with the young Bell-Jeff players. Both have extensive football knowledge and know what it takes to field a competitive team. With both playing football at a high level — Fauria at the University of Washington and Stumph at Indiana University — you have got to believe they knew the dangers and the possible repercussions of putting boys on the football in a baptism-by-fire situation.
Who you can't fault for the program's struggles this season, though, are the Bell-Jeff players. Facing adversity, going against bigger and better prepared teams and playing for long minutes, the Guards' athletes who stuck it out and tried to make a season happen should be commended. Some of those players had to work harder and endure more hardship than most players do on full squads. It is not because of their failings that Bell-Jeff wasn't successful. In fact, they bear no blame whatsoever.
In preparing the team for the season, the players weren't ready early on, and as a result, Bell-Jeff had to cancel its first three nonleague games. But that was only an indicator of what struggles were to come.
The Guards finally opened their season Sept. 21 with a 44-6 nonleague loss to Chadwick. Those would be the only points Bell-Jeff would score in the three games it played this season.
The Guards also lost in a nonleague contest to Campbell Hall, 28-0, on Sept. 28 before canceling their scheduled Oct. 5 nonleague game against Santa Clarita Christian because of lack of players. Bell-Jeff's last game was Oct. 12, as it was defeated by St. Monica, 36-0, in a Santa Fe League game. All three games were played with a running clock in the second half.
Mercifully, things finally came to an end for the Guards last week when opposing league administrators were informed Bell-Jeff would not be playing its final three games.
Now that the season is done, it will be interesting to see how, or if, the Bell-Jeff program bounces back. Some have suggested the Guards switch to eight-man football in order to be competitive with schools of similar size. With an enrollment that has continued to dwindle, some wonder if Bell-Jeff is even going to be able to stay open for the next school year.
If the Bell-Jeff football program does experience a turnaround next season, hopefully its coach and the school's administration learn from the mistakes that plagued the Guards this season. There is always hope. One only needs to look at the Flintridge Prep situation to realize it can be done — but not without a great deal of work.