UPDATED: For Andover Football, No More Friday Night Lights
The 2012 varsity football season ends early, leaving administrators scrambling to restore the homecoming experience for the final time in school history.
The corner of Andover and Long Lake roads was unusually quiet Friday night. No bright lights to drown out the moonlight, no thumping drum beats from the marching band, and no rattle of the aluminum stands shaking from the enthusiasm of a raucous crowd.
There simply was no football Friday night at Andover High School. And despite the best efforts of school officials, coaches, parents and players, there will never be again.
The Barons forfeited to Ferndale in the midst of a three-game homestand during the school's final varsity football season with the pending merger to Bloomfield Hills High School in 2013.
A roster of injured and frustrated students quickly began to lose interest following a few winless performances on the field.
R.J. Guizzetti, Andover's athletic coordinator, said of the 28 players that attended football camp in late August, only 12 were able to wear pads in practice last Monday, and 11 on Tuesday.
"We cannot expect our players to play in a football game on Friday when they are not able to be coached during the week on the techniques and skills that they need to have to be safe and successful," Guizzetti said. "With 7-8 players injured and others missing practices for other reasons, we felt that we had to do this to keep from putting our players in an unsafe situation."
All for naught
The decision to cancel the season, officially announced by administrators last Wednesday, was nearly made twice during the last school year. Even before the 2011 team comprised of just 21 players finished the season, there was concern among school and district officials whether a 2012 team was viable.
Administrators and coaches, led by Andover Principal Rob Durecka and then-head coach Jim DeWald called meetings among the male student body and eventually had a strong enough commitment to meet the December deadline for registering to play the 2012 season, per Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) rules.
Those commitments were tested again in February when DeWald accepted an open head coaching position at Seaholm High School. The players and administrators rallied, enlisting the help of district resident, former Detroit Lions player and NFL All-Pro Lomas Brown as an assistant coach and appeared ready to compete by the start of the season.
During Andover's season-opening blowout loss to cross-district rival Lahser, Durecka commented on how proud he was of the players and coaches for coming together to at least take the field following the tumultuous off-season. Although winless, the 2011 Barons were competitive in every game — six games were decided by seven points or less. Though the performance didn't necessarily give hope for a state championship, Durecka said he looked forward to seeing the team progress throughout the year and perhaps model last year's squad.
That didn't happen. In the next two contests, Andover fell 52-0 at Hazel Park and 62-13 to Berkley in what was the final game on Baron Field. Guizzetti explained that 16 of the 17 players to dress for the Berkley game appeared physically able to play the following week, and he was optimistic the season would continue.
But when just a dozen showed for practice, he said he knew they couldn't go on. School officials also acknowledged that players had input in the decision and that physical safety wasn't the only concern.
"Individual players were spoken with multiple times, and (co-coach) Mike Boyd and I spoke with the whole team on numerous occasions about the situation. We told them that we would fight for them as long as they wanted us to," he said. "We also told them that when football stopped being fun and they no longer wanted to play they could either tell us or stop showing up. Some of them have decided not to show up any longer."
Sophomores and juniors still interested in playing football can join the combined Bloomfield Hills Black Hawks Junior Varsity team, which has practiced as one all season. MHSAA rules prohibit seniors from playing on the combined team.
Officials said the last thing they wanted to do was cancel the season, but felt compelled to do so. Much of the fan base reacted with compassion for the players.
"This is so sad," wrote reader Laura Cullen on Bloomfield Patch's Facebook Page. "My heart goes out to all those young men who worked so hard to have this last year together as a team. Hope they hold their heads high for the attempt and know the community is thinking of them!"
Andover was to host Royal Oak for homecoming on Oct. 12. Royal Oak, as any opponent that has Andover on the schedule, will receive a win for playoff consideration purposes this season, said John Johnson, spokesman for the MHSAA.
The schools are welcome to find opponents to fill the void in the schedule, if possible, Johnson said. Unfortunately, it's a common practice.
"Every year it seems that we have a program or two that suspends its football season due to a lack of numbers," Johnson explained.
Yet school officials know the football experience goes beyond just wins and losses. Following the decision to cancel the season, concerns immediately turned to the homecoming game and how the annual tradition can continue to unite current and past Barons without a central athletic event.
Couple that with the urgency of Andover's final homecoming dance in history, Guizzetti and other officials are lobbying to reschedule one of the men's road soccer games to Oct. 12, "so that our student body has the opportunity to celebrate their final Andover Barons Homecoming," he said.
No progress had been made on that effort as of Monday.
The impact of the district's decision reverberates beyond the Bloomfield Hills Schools. Andover was also scheduled to be Auburn Hills Avondale's homecoming opponent on Oct. 5.
School officials scrambled for a new opponent and scheduled Highland Park on that date, according to district spokeswoman Barbara Fornasiero. First-year principal Michelle Imbrunone credited Keith Gust, the teacher in charge of athletics, and Head Coach Steve Deutsch with tirelessly calling, texting, and e-mailing potential opponents across the region for more than two days last week.
She was also extremely grateful to Highland Park for coming through when it didn't have to, particularly when crucial MHSAA games are at stake. It is the first time the schools will play each other.
"I'm very appreciative that they were so flexible and really able to step up here," she said. "It's a lot easier to say 'don't do it,' but I think they recognized we were in a very tough spot."
Imbrunone said she hated the thought of having to move homecoming festivities to the following week when Avondale hosts Lahser High School, which is already shaping up to be a big game between two current unbeaten teams in the OAA Blue Division.
"Homecoming, prom and commencement are the three anchor events that people look to at any school, and we have alumni coming in and there are a lot of other factors that would make moving the event difficult," she explained.
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