PITTSFIELD -- Low enrollment numbers at St. Joseph High School have negatively affected athletic participation throughout the school -- and those effects will now be felt on the gridiron.

After folding its hockey program into a co-op with Taconic and Pittsfield last year, an agreement is now in place for the school to join a co-op with Drury High School's program. Drury will be the host school.

St. Joseph Athletic Director Jim Stimpson said the idea of a co-op has been in talks for months, after being discussed during weekly athletic directors' meetings.

Last month, the talks started heating up, and during last week's ADs' and principals' meetings, the idea was agreed upon.

"It hurts the whole county that it comes to this," former St. Joe head coach Gary Bianchi said Monday.
"It hurts the whole county that it comes to this," former St. Joe head coach Gary Bianchi said Monday. (Eagle file photo)
The final decision is awaiting approval from North Adams Public Schools Superintendent James Montepare.

Montepare said he did not foresee any issue that will keep the co-op from moving forward. The next step in finalizing the plan is submitting the minutes of the principals' meeting to the MIAA and signing off on the necessary paperwork.

"The North Adams School District is supportive of the co-op," he said. "We need to make sure all the appropriate paperwork goes through. It's little bit premature to give anything definitive. We'll know more in the near future."

Stimpson said the co-op does not represent the end of the St. Joe football program. He said combining the programs will be beneficial to both schools, allowing them to increase numbers, with hopes of both schools fielding full teams for the 2015 season.

"It's unfortunate because St. Joe football has been entrenched in the community. It's hard to let it go," he said. "But we're trying to build numbers.

"Co-ops are put into place to aid schools suffering from [low] enrollment numbers and football numbers as well."

The lack of numbers in the St. Joe and Drury football programs hurt the competitiveness of both schools last season.

St. Joseph left the Berkshire County League for the 2013 season, playing an independent schedule and finishing 0-8. It was the first year the Crusaders did not play their city rival, Pittsfield, since 1919. St. Joe had won five of the last six games in the series for the Francis D. Fallon Award, including the 2012 game.

Drury finished 3-7, with one of those wins coming in the non-playoff games to end the regular season.

With the emphasis on safety and concussion regulations from high school up to the National Football League, former St. Joe coach Ben Kline said fielding a team of 15 to 20 players was challenging. He said multiple injuries hurt his team's depth during the season as well.

"It got tough as the year went on with numbers that low," he said. "It's similar to junior varsity, because you're shifting guys out of their natural positions.

"With young players trying to learn offense and defense, it's a challenge to get continuity with the changes we had week to week."

St. Joe junior Marquise Hamilton said he was shocked when he heard the news of the co-op, but overall, he said the increase in team size should benefit the players.

Both Kline and Stimpson are hopeful St. Joe's large freshman class will provide a foundation for the football team to return. Stimpson added that Catholic schools in Diocese of Springfield, which includes Pittsfield, are making an increased effort to improve enrollment. He said with the size of their freshman class, the efforts seem to be working.

For now, Kline will spend the 2014 season as an assistant to Brian Jezewski at Pittsfield.

Former St. Joe football coach Gary Bianchi, who stepped aside after the 2012 season, said he understands the work that went in to keeping both programs on the field. However, he said, it's unfortunate not to see Crusaders football next season.

"Berkshire County is down another team," he said. "Everybody's going to have to look for more independent games now. It hurts the whole county that it comes to this."

Stimpson said he does not expect this decision to go over well within the St. Joe community. He added the decision is still better than fielding no team at all, and if everything goes as planned, the Crusaders will be back in the near future.

"This is the way to build the team up. The alternative is shutting the team down. That would not be well received [either]," he said. "We look at it as a positive thing. Co-ops allow those players the opportunity to continue playing for another school, in hopes of playing later."

To reach Akeem Glaspie:
aglaspie@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6252.
On Twitter: @THEAkeemGlaspie.