CIAC football: No pads? No problem for Shelton

Shelton High football coach Jeff Roy was ahead of the curve when it comes to limiting the amount of time his team spends on contact drills in practice.

“We limited our contact at practice last season,” Roy said when asked about a ruling that will limit contact drills at practice from 90 minutes to 45 minutes each week. “We play a tough schedule with tough games in a tough (SCC) conference. We can’t afford any injuries.”

Participation in football has dropped. 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.

“Our numbers are right where they always were,” said Roy, whose Gaels dressed out 71 players, including 19 seniors. “I speak with parents at the youth level and they all ask about injuries. I tell them that football is safer now than it has ever been.”

Shelton has a dual feeder system with the Shelton Flag Football League and American Youth Football. AYF was established in 1996. Rules and regulations ensure players are in a safe environment with a competitive balance between teams.

“Since the 1970s we’ve had flag football,” Roy said. “Most kids start with the modified flag league. The players wear pads on the line. Kids start with flag, and if they like it, they move over to AYF.

“At our practices, we concentrate more on technique than live contact. There has been no drop off once games begin.”

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 the 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).

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.

“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.’

“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.”