It appeared to be business as usual for Kris Cassie on Monday morning in Sandwich, but of course, it wasn’t.
And that’s too bad.
The routine every August going back to the 2001-02 school year, when Cassie started working at the school, has been the same.
On the first day of football practice, he would be involved in some way with the program, either as an assistant coach, four years as athletic director or the past four as the head coach.
He was back on the practice field Monday, albeit briefly, before lightning with an incoming storm sent 30-some players and coaches inside to the weight room.
It wasn’t the same, however.
Earlier this summer, district officials made the unpleasant decision to cancel this year’s varsity season due to lack of numbers. Only six seniors expressed an interest in June when Cassie and his staff began summer contact days.
“The same thing happened with the sophomores who were going to be juniors,” he said. “There were only six.”
Moving up every sophomore or even some freshmen also wasn’t an answer, district officials wisely decided. Overmatched rookie and second-year players have no business battling veterans.
The pandemic didn’t help, either.
“COVID has done some work on our program,” Cassie said.
When the 2020 season was shortened to six games and pushed back to the spring, Sandwich followed protocols that prevented the Indians from playing two of those games.
And then last fall, Sandwich was only able to play six of its nine scheduled games, limiting the experience for players who are still in the program.
“We lost two-thirds of our games,” Cassie said.
Sandwich is not the only high school in Illinois taking drastic action.
In late July, Port Byron Riverdale in Rock County canceled its season, with only seven varsity players expected to return. And last week, Fisher in Champaign County did the same, with only six varsity players on the roster.
Those schools, with enrollments of 337 and 176, respectively, are considerably smaller than Sandwich, which the Illinois High School Association lists at 623 students.
Declining participation in traditional football also prompted 29 high schools across the state to now offer eight-man football.
That group includes area programs Parkville Christian in Yorkville and Harvest Academy in Elgin as well as Kirkland Hiawatha, which participates in the Little Ten Conference in other sports.
Sandwich, Port Byron and Fisher all plan to play a JV schedule this fall, with the hopes of resuming varsity play next year.
Cassie, who has eight games scheduled for Sandwich, is looking for a ninth opponent.
“We have good numbers at the freshman and sophomore levels,” said Cassie, who continued weightlifting and summer programs with the players he has remaining in the program. “Last Monday, we were invited to Bears camp.”
He’s also encouraged by good numbers in Sandwich’s youth tackle program.
“One of the classes has 35 kids out and several others are at 30,” Cassie said. “A lot of the dads coaching in that program are players I coached.”
Cassie and his staff are continuing to work with that program as well, hoping to build for the future.
“My heart truly does go out to the seniors who want to play,” Cassie said. “The decision was made out of concern for player safety.”
It certainly wasn’t easy.
The JV will open the season at 11 am on Aug. 27 against Geneseo. The Indians will play on several different days of the week.
“We’re going to coach the heck out of the frog-soph players,” Cassie said. “I’ve reached the point I have to move forward.”
It’s all you can do.