With its gridiron program struggling to survive, Cardinal McCarrick High School has petitioned the Greater Middlesex Conference for permission to play an independent schedule for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
“We don’t want to lose the program,” said Cardinal McCarrick Athletics Director Gil Pritchard, whose gridiron squad dressed just 18 healthy players for the 2012 finale.
“We’re hoping if we can play independent — get through a year — that will build up that enthusiasm in the kids … and we’ll see the program come back and flourish.”
Cardinal McCarrick, formerly St. Mary, suspended its football program in 1932 and reinstated it in 1998.
“We are all really committed and excited about the upcoming season,” said junior running back and strong safety Armand Arnaldy, Cardinal McCarrick’s team captain.
“We are working very hard and striving to achieve our goals. It’s been tough, but the guys don’t quit. We’ve never kept our heads down. Whoever we have to play, we’ll go against. We just try to make the best of our situation, even those teams we are playing with 50 or 60 guys. We go out there with our 11 and play our hearts out and leave it all on the field.”
The Eagles, who have made just one postseason appearance, struggled to a 2-16 record (both wins were out of conference) over the past two years while being outscored 580-86 (41.2 point average margin of defeat) in 12 consecutive losses to GMC Blue Division opponents.
“We just don’t have the numbers to play against schools like that any longer,” said Pritchard, noting the Eagles had difficulty recovering physically after getting outscored 96-14 in early 2012 losses to Point Pleasant Beach and Keyport. “We struggled just to get through the rest of the year.”
GMC President Carl Buffalino said the league’s attorney, Jim Curran, is reviewing the conference’s bylaws and constitution to see if a school is required to be a member of the league for all sports or if an exception can be made.
Unlike schools from the upper divisions, who can petition to drop to the White Division or Blue Division, schools in the lower division have no mechanism for competitive relief.
Cardinal McCarrick, according to the NJSIAA’s latest enrollment figures, is the eighth smallest of the state’s 347 football-playing schools.
“If (the petition) were to work and it were to go through,” Buffalino said, “the rationale would be to preserve the program.”
According to GMC football committee chairman Mike Wolfthal, a similar petition of now-defunct St. Peter High School to play an independent schedule in the 1990s was denied.
Wolfthal said he believed the denial led not only to the Cardinals’ football program folding, but that it may have contributed to the school shutting its doors a decade later due to declining enrollment.
“It killed their program,” Wolfthal said. “I don’t think we’ll make the same mistake with McCarrick. We’ve got to do what’s right for the kids. That’s all that matters.”
The remaining GMC Blue Division schools would have to fill an open date on their 2014 and 2015 schedules to accommodate Cardinal McCarrick’s departure, should the league approve the Eagles’ petition.
“We would much rather work a little bit to pick up a game than to see a program fold,” said Buffalino, who is South River’s athletics director. “When a program folds, that’s not good for (member) schools. The goal is, when we play them in four or five years, to have a competitive game.”
Cardinal McCarrick football coach Rich Hilliard, who creatively used garbage cans as linemen to compensate for his limited roster during practices last fall, said he currently has 20 hard-working and dedicated players committed to the program.
“We’ve got a lot of backing from other teams,” said Hilliard, noting he appreciates the empathy of other league members. “You don’t have to be blind to see what’s going on.”
Cardinal McCarrick’s fate could be decided as early as September or as late as May 2014.