The eyes of Boston City League supporters will be keenly trained on Friday night’s Division 8 North final between Pope John (9-0) and first-year co-op Boston English/New Mission (8-0) in Everett.
Last November, New Mission suffered a 35-0 loss against Lynn Tech in the sectional semifinals. With a 2-8 finish in 2017, English failed to qualify for the state tournament.
But together, the program has secured a City League North title and the first sectional final appearance for either school since the MIAA transitioned to the new playoff format in 2013.
“We preach that everybody’s watching. The city is watching,” said Ryan Conway, an English alum who is in his third year as head coach.
“Part of me wants to tell the kids that this isn’t just for you, it’s for all the other city teams. I would like to say that we’re going to put the rest of the city on our back, but I’m not going to. Because I don’t want the moment to feel too big.”
Three years ago, just eight players showed up for Conway’s first practice. English only dressed 22 players on Thanksgiving Day last November against Boston Latin in the country’s longest continuous rivalry.
With the schools collaborating, 86 candidates reported for tryouts in August. There are now 58 players on the roster. Just as important for Conway is the addition of a subvarsity program, allowing for younger players to develop without feeling overmatched.
Once rivals (Mission defeated English, 16-8, in the 2016 sectional quarterfinals), these players have come together for a collective goal, and slowly but surely, embraced Conway’s disciplinary system.
“The kids are really responding well,” said Conway, who coached for 15 years at East Boston before returning to his alma mater. He has four of his former Eastie players on staff.
“Football is the greatest game in the world because it teaches life lessons. We’ve been able to instill a culture here. You can do that when you have numbers and can hold kids accountable.”
Senior captain Raymonte Williams, who started for two years at Boston English before his transfer to New Mission, is an athletic, and academic model for the co-op. In the sectional semis against West Roxbury, the 6-foot-1-inch wide receiver rushed for a game-tying 39-yard touchdown before English/Mission prevailed, 20-14.
Williams, who carries a 3.93 grade point average, has interest from Williams College among other schools. He credits football for keeping him focused and honing life skills.
“Coach Conway is different,” said Williams. “He tells the kids that it’s bigger than football. I’ve learned that it’s about playing for the name on the front of the jersey. It’s about bringing people together, working with others. Skills I’m going to use all my life.”
Julien Soto, a senior running back/linebacker, barely made the grade a year ago, his 1.7 GPA just above the minimum for BCL athletes to be eligible. This year, that number has risen to 2.4 and Soto is taking extra classes with the goal of graduating with a 3.0 and earning a shot at college eligibility.
“I never even wanted to play football, but I sat down with Coach Conway and he made me think of it from a different perspective,” said Soto. “Ever since I came to that first practice, my eyes have been opened. I thought high school was just social hour. Now I take my academics seriously.”
The co-op nearly didn’t get off the ground. A sudden rise in enrollment forced English/Mission to scramble to accommodate 80-plus players.
According to Conway, the alumni association at English stepped in to provide enough helmets and shoulder pads for the players to participate. Similar efforts may be required from supporting communities if other BCL schools combine into larger programs.
Several city schools are struggling with enrollment, as statewide football participation has declined over the last five years, per a study conducted by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Madison Park shut down its season after three losses and three forfeits and Burke — despite a co-op with Christian Academy of Science and Humanities (CASH) — was not ready for its season opener.
For Burke coach Byron Beaman, smaller co-ops may not be enough for BCL football to return to prominence.
“When you start piecing schools together, you’re not giving people enough,” said the eight-year coach, noting that his program only incorporates six to seven players from CASH.
“What we should do is something more comprehensive. The city needs to be divided into four parts. Whatever quadrant you land in, you represent that regional program.”
With West Roxbury High slated to close pending a vote by the education committee in December, players from the BCL South champion roster may join English/Mission.
“We have to do something,” said West Roxbury coach Derek Wright, “Because we compete against each other, but once we go outside the city, it’s hard to compete.”
Avery Esdaile, senior athletic director for the Boston Public Schools, said there will be a conversation this offseason to determine the best course of action going forward.
“We do need to look at co-oping schools that are struggling with numbers,” said Esdaile.
“At the end of the day we’re trying to provide an opportunity for any of our kids to participate. We’ll try to get ahead of the curve and look at the sustainability of each program and have a rational reaction to the data.”
While English/Mission’s opponent Friday may have more resources, Pope John is a small private school with just 32 players on its roster.
Per first-year coach Paul Sobolewski, a Pope John alum, the program finished last season with just 13 players and did not field a football team from 2013-16.
“Certainly times have changed everywhere in Massachusetts with football,” said Sobolewski. “Our numbers can’t even compare now. The realistic goal is to get to the 40s, but the days of having 60-plus kids are probably gone.”
Pope John managed to field a subvarsity team this year, and Sobolewski is optimistic about the future of the program. Yet there is a possibility Pope John goes the route of neighboring private schools Matignon/Saint Joseph Prep and forms a co-op.
Pope John last won a Super Bowl in 1998, but with a signature win Friday, the momentum, and interest could be enough for the Tigers to maintain their status as an independent program.
Regardless of the result, the success of English/Mission could serve as a blueprint for public schools.
“If kids stayed local, Boston city schools could be one of the biggest football and basketball powerhouses in the nation,” said New Mission athletic director Malcolm Smith.
“We have to establish something and create sense of collective pride. You’re going to start seeing two or three schools collaborate. That’s the future in the city.”
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.