The Vashon Pirates traveled to Sultan Friday night for their season opener. The final score — 0-55 — represented the kind of loss the team has suffered often over the last decade. But there were a few bright spots along the way for the Vashon boys.
It was clear from the start there would be challenges for the Pirates against the Sultan Turks. The Pirates have seen a steady decline in football turn-out over the years and while the roster listed 25 players, fewer than 20 were playing, leaving most of the team to play both offense and defense. Sultan listed 33 players on the their roster, and most of them were playing. Size was also factor, with a set of big Sultan twins — 6 feet 4 inches/255 pounds and 6 feet 5 inches/235 pounds — included in the mix.
The game started out on a relatively even keel, but things soon took a turn for the worse. The Pirates’ quarterback, Will Godwin, is a brave freshman and he did a fantastic job soldiering through the game. At the end of the first quarter, though, with the Turks on offense constantly and the Pirates limited to going out on downs repeatedly, it was 0-14.
That set the tone for the game, with a half-time score of 0-39, third quarter 0-46 and final of 0-55.
The game was full of tough breaks for the Pirates, including fumbles, interceptions and even a couple of successful onside kicks from the Turks, including one that resulted in a touchdown.
But there were also some stand-out moments for the Vashon team. Junior Jack Cunningham had a great catch, senior Joe Ghigleri managed to pull off a number of good tackles and senior Sol Dehnert blocked an extra point and showed a lot of grace under pressure as a receiver, though he was constantly under assault by the Turks’ defense. The star of the show for the Pirates was senior Richard Rivas-Gutierrez, though. Pirates fans are constantly delighted by the solidly-built Gutierrez as a kicker, but the Turks were surprised to discover he is also one of the leading tacklers for the Pirates, as well as a runner. In fact, in the third quarter, he fumbled a kick, but as the Turks pounced, he grabbed the ball from the ground and ran for about 20 yards — dragging a few Turks behind him, reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch.
The Vashon High School football team has struggled over the last few years, primarily due to a decline in registration and a small squad. Part of this is due to the changing nature of high school football, with increasing concerns over player safety. Yet other schools are managing to still field teams as the program on Vashon has dwindled. Another part of the decline could be based on the losses over the years, as the program has struggled to find ways to stay competitive with the smaller squads, often having players who have never played before.
Of the 25 players for the Pirates, nine are seniors. Another nine are juniors. Team captains are Will Hennessey, Sol Dehnert and Joe Ghigleri, all of whom have played for the Pirates throughout high school. But there aren’t a lot of freshmen or sophomores on the roster.
Two of the co-captains say there is room for hope in the season ahead, and this was just a tough first game.
“This was the first game of the season, and we did better than we did in our first game last year,” said Hennessey. “I think we have a young quarterback who is comfortable in the high school setting in his first outing and has a hopeful future. We have some juniors stepping up on defense, and that will make a difference, too. And we have a strong senior class that has played together for four years. This is our first game and we are figuring things out.”
“We can improve,” said Dehnert. “One thing that I liked is that no one got down on each other. We kept it together and kept trying.”
Friday the team travels to Coupeville for another non-league game (this one with an early start at 6 p.m.). On Sept. 14, the Pirates will host Cedar Park Christian from Bothell in the first official game on the new high school turf. The new field was a long time coming before it was passed as a community bond last year. Islanders are encouraged to come out and celebrate both the Pirates on the 14th and the completion of the amazing new field.
After that, the Pirates will only have four more home games and chances to see them in action, on Oct. 5, 19, 26 and Nov. 2. The last two games will be homecoming and senior night.
Story Sidebar: Why does high school football continue to struggle?
An increase in worries over concussion is one part of the problem. But there are more reasons behind the national decline in high school football, according to a recent study released by the National Federation of State High School Associations. High school football turn-out has shrunk by seven percent in the last few years nationwide. While high schoolers playing organized sports climbed to almost 8 million in the past school year, those joining football squads continued to steadily decline, according to data released by the National Federation of State High School Associations. That is not sustainable, because while football has an advantage in terms of coming in first for overall participation, that roster size is also a hindrance when it comes to long-term viability in the face of declining turnout That means there are kids who will play literally every snap of the game, which seems much more dangerous, and highlights one of the reasons we could see more and more schools stop offering the sport. In a way, there’s an event horizon for the roster, where if kids don’t want to play or parents don’t want them to play, the roster gets small enough where it’s tough for even the most ardent football supporter to deny injury risks for kids.
Many teams are trying to save high school football by reducing their rosters from 11 to 8 and changing the rules, allowing players more breaks. Some teams are stopping their varsity programs and just playing junior varsity, taking the chance to rebuild their teams and focus on middle school development programs. It is clearly a larger national trend but felt very keenly on Vashon Island, where there are plenty of parents concerned about concussion or not as interested in football generally.
All of this presents a challenge for those who grew up playing and watching football. Thirty years ago, high school football was the unifying sport in many small towns. Now the sport with the largest turnout nationally? Track and field.
— Lauri Hennessey is the parent of a Pirate football player.