BY MICHAEL KELLY
Substantial change is coming for three freshman sports in the Suburban Council for the 2015-16 school year.
Namely, they will no longer exist.
Well, sort of. In Section II’s largest league, the freshman level for boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer, and softball is being replaced with a new level that Shenendehowa athletic director Chris Culnan referred to as “Modified 9.” The change is part semantics, but addresses a real issue for a variety of schools in the league confronted with low participation numbers.
In the past, the Suburban Council has elected not to allow freshmen to compete at the modified level — the lone exception being field hockey — because participation numbers were high enough that there was no perceived need. That’s changed in recent years as more athletes are focusing on one sport instead of competing in multiple sports.
“Interest in sports has not declined,” said Section II executive director Wayne Bertrand, a former athletic director at Guilderland. “What’s happening is that we’re getting more and more specialization. Kids aren’t playing three sports anymore.”
To combat that change, Niskayuna athletic director Larry Gillooley said the league is attempting to emphasize finding a way to allow its youngest athletes more opportunities — such as by creating an extra modified level.
“The problem has been that we’re cutting too many kids at a young age, and by the time those kids get to high school, they’re not playing any sports for us,” Gillooley said. “Now, hopefully, we’ll be able to keep almost every seventh- and eighth-grader who tries out.”
Here’s how the new format works: Modified 9 rosters will look a lot like current freshman ones in that eligible players will be seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders. Modified 9 teams will also need to follow the state’s modified guidelines rather than high school ones, which means later season start dates and playing a couple of fewer games.
However, the key difference is that in reclassifying the level as a modified one, Suburban Council middle-schoolers will no longer need to be selectively classified to participate in the affected offerings.
(For freshman sports — plus junior varsity and varsity — middle-school athletes need to pass a string of physical tests to be allowed to compete.)
For next year, the state has adjusted the classification test to a more rigorous one, threatening the ability for schools to fill out freshman rosters with middle schoolers.
“For example, our freshman soccer league used to have roughly eight teams and a number of those teams were made up of primarily seventh- and eighth-graders,” Culnan said. “There was a fear that if we didn’t make this change [to Modified 9], we would have been down to four or five schools with freshman teams — probably more like four.
“And,” Culnan continued, “what are you going to do? Play each school five times?”
Schools that fielded modified teams made up of seventh- and eighth-graders in softball and soccer will be able to continue to do that, too. For schools that field two modified-level teams, one will need to be designated a Modified 9 team.
Suburban Council schools formally voted to make the change in late May.
Around Section II, most leagues already allow freshmen athletes to play modified sports; state rules readily allow for it.
“We offer that in pretty much all of our sports,” said Glens Falls athletic director Chip Corlew, whose school is a member of the Foothills Council.
“A lot of leagues already do,” Bertrand said.
Gillooley said the league could discuss adding more Modified 9 teams in the future.
“Will this branch out?” Gillooley said. “If we see this as a success, it could.”