WOONSOCKET – Lecture Room A is located a screen pass away from the main entrance of the city’s public high school.
On this particular November afternoon, the activity inside this theater-esque setting features a business tone. Upon veering off the corridor and through the door, you are greeted by a handful of Woonsocket High football players. They are huddled around a square-shaped table, some with textbooks lying flat on the surface while others elect to rest such important reading material in their laps.
A quick scan of the rest of the room reveals attention being devoted to scholastics. Every now and then one of the players at the aforementioned table will become irritated with the noise decibel, leading to a remark along the lines of “Hey guys, pipe down!”
It’s quiet time and study time rolled into one. Call it the calm that comes on the heels of a long day in school and before shoving off to Barry Field for close to three hours of practice time.
Fastening an inscription outside the room that reads “mandatory” appearing before “study hall” would help paint the kind of picture that captures the very essence of this important practice. Besides upholding the “student” component of the moniker “student-athlete” and devoting after-school hours to comprehending the game plan for that week’s opponent, the 2013 Villa Novans have evolved, in the eyes of some, into a more well-rounded and complete lot thanks to the invocation of the new discipline.
“It was the missing part of a puzzle that made for a successful program,” stated Woonsocket Mayor-elect Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, who had a substantial hand in securing the necessary funds to cover transportation costs from Woonsocket High School to Barry Field.
In addition, Baldelli-Hunt conveyed to the coaching staff the importance that as part of this crucial bus deal, players at the varsity, junior varsity and freshman levels had to participate in the one-hour long study session that in essence was being done to benefit them.
“To keep them eligible, busy and out of trouble, something like this definitely helps,” stated George Nasuti, Woonsocket’s athletic director and football assistant coach.
The genesis of what became a key staple in the Novans’ program dates back several years when Baldelli-Hunt introduced legislation in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, where the constituents of District 49 elected her to four terms. What Baldelli-Hunt proposed is that if individuals or organizations wished to come forward with a donation, it could be earmarked for a specific cause rather than being placed in a general fund.
In her own backyard, Baldelli-Hunt saw a situation where invoking such a course of action met the criteria.
“In this particular case, we have Barry Field, and we’re very grateful that our children have a place for their sporting events, but the distance from the high school to the field is over three miles. When they take this walk, it discourages certain people from joining teams. It’s a long walk,” Baldelli-Hunt explained. “What also happened was I thought generally, the first-quarter report card comes out, and children are in danger of failing and becoming sidelined because they’re not academically sound. Then it’s time for the playoffs and the Thanksgiving Day game (against longtime holiday rival Cumberland).”
The football season was in full swing when Baldelli-Hunt – her son Victor is a senior and a wideout/safety on the Novans’ grid outfit – huddled with Nasuti and head coach Carnell Henderson. With an eye cast solely toward providing the football players with an academic boost, the wheels of turning this vision of “you best show up” study hall into a reality were set in motion.
According to Nasuti, the numbers he crunched revealed that it would cost $51 per day for an after-school bus for the specific intent of providing transportation from the high school, located on Cass Avenue, to Barry Field. In the midst of her busy campaign schedule, Baldelli-Hunt went about the task of finding a donation that would also come attached with an important asterisk.
“I indicated to Coach Henderson that I would acquire the funds and (the coaching staff) would make sure that the kids went to after-school mandatory study. After mandatory study, they would get on the bus and get a ride to the field,” said Baldelli-Hunt.
Added Nasuti, “The rule is that they had to come.”
By mid-October, Baldelli-Hunt received a $2,000 commitment from Raymond Bourque, a real estate developer from Massachusetts who has investment ties to Woonsocket. Such a generous pledge allowed the most important domino in this multifaceted process to fall, for after word was received that the appropriate funding had been procured, it was all-systems-go as far as Nasuti and Henderson were concerned.
The Woonsocket pair now possessed the necessary trump card in order to make this particular situation successful.
“We tried (study hall) over the years by getting a late bus, but we did it this year,” cited Nasuti about past practices that proved unable to have staying power. “Our football players struggle because they don’t focus early enough in the school year. We tried to catch (any academic shortcomings) before grades came out.”
Talk to Henderson and Nasuti and you quickly get a clear understanding why study hall has been a welcomed addition.
“The last few years, we’ve lost four or five kids after first-quarter report cards,” said Henderson, now in his sixth year of coaching at his high school alma mater. “Something like this allows the players to stay focused on school and kind of forces it on them.”
Added Nasuti, “Our practices start at 4 o’clock, and this allows us to keep track of them. Some of the things that have happened in the past are that after school, they’ll go home or go visit a friend or girlfriend. They’ll show up late to practice or miss it completely. Or they’ll get up (to Barry Field) early with nothing to do.”
By mandating that the football players remain on school property once the final bell sounds, they are adhering to firm set of principles that are actually advantageous. Study hall runs from 2:30 to 3:30, and during that hour, the Novans have the option of meeting with teachers and/or seeking assistance from the homework club that meets in the library.
If the players are in the designated room that was secured by Nasuti, they are afforded a prime chance to get a head start on homework assignments while the material is still fresh.
“I feel like I can focus more right after school,” expressed Jaston Robinson, a junior running back/linebacker.
The more you think about it, the Woonsocket football players put in a long day. School begins at 8 a.m. and concludes at 2:15 p.m. Add roughly three hours spent working on conditioning and play execution at Barry Field, and you’re talking about not walking through their own home's front doors until shortly after 7 p.m.
Surely, the last thing on a player’s mind is what needs to be done in preparation for the next day.
“You’re probably tired, but if you’ve done half of your homework already, you have a chance to be good for the night,” said senior fullback/linebacker Francisco Torres about study hall and the definite “leg up” it provided him, a sentiment undoubtedly shared by the vast majority of his teammates.
Besides supplying the Novans with a strong sense of academic importance, there’s also the camaraderie aspect. The players have been virtually joined at the hip, from spending all day in school together to going to study hall to busing to their football field as one uniformed lot.
“It sets the tone that we’re constantly together, not in scattered bunches,” noted Henderson, who along with Nasuti take turns supervising the study period.
Added Torres, “It’s a way for us to fight for each other on the field and know that we’ll have each other’s backs.”
At its peak, Nasuti counted 60 players between the varsity, junior varsity and freshman levels. The upperclassmen with cars were still permitted to drive to Barry Field, yet the chief overseer of the Novans’ athletic department reports that he was able to fill every seat on a 45-passenger bus that came from the school department’s bus company, Durham School Services.
“It kept the kids coming to practice every single day,” Nasuti said. “Even someone like (senior) D’Andre Thomas, who had his season end with a broken foot, still came to every study hall. There were a lot of positives.”
The proof that this first-time endeavor paid off came on Friday, Nov. 15, the day before Woonsocket’s Division II quarterfinal-round contest against St. Raphael. First-quarter report cards were distributed with Nasuti pointing out that the academic casualties for the SRA game were minimal. All of the regulars maintained eligibility and will carry over this distinction when they suit up against Cumberland Thursday morning, which comes on the heels of three straight days of study hall – the final ones in what has proven to be a good first crack at something that Nasuti would like to see established on Day 1 next year.
“Our goal is to continue the study hall program providing funding is available,” he said.
In order to get on the football field, one must adhere to certain requirements. At Woonsocket High, one of those requirements does not feature a letter grade or pass/fail distinction. It’s a requirement that begins with arriving inside Lecture Room A at 2:30 p.m. on the dot.
“The study hall gave the student-athletes the needed time and structure to keep education as their top priority and allow them to participate in a sport they love,” said Baldelli-Hunt.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03