WOONSOCKET — Woonsocket High School athletic director George Nasuti is guardedly optimistic that his interscholastic sports program will continue to enjoy the success, and occasional state championships, that the Villa Novans have accrued in recent years.
“We have 21 varsity sports for boys and girls,” Nasuti was saying earlier this week. “We’re represented in just about every sport except for lacrosse. I think our program is one of the very good things that is happening in Woonsocket right now. A lot of people are struggling in today’s economy. High school sports can be a positive thing. I think if our high school did not have an athletics program, the city would be a mess.
“Sports give the kids structure in their lives,” Nasuti added. “They develop pride in their community, and respect, by wearing a Woonsocket High uniform. It makes them feel good about being from Woonsocket.”
Woonsocket’s football team will seek to repeat as Division II state champions again this year. The program has won three Super Bowls over the past seven years.
“I think the football team is going to be pretty solid again this year,” Nasuti said. “The early numbers (for participation) are good. We’ll know more in August when we get ready for preseason practice but there are some good players coming back.
“Football has become a big interest for our kids again. The youth programs in the city have really helped. Still, we need to get more freshmen playing football. Right now, we don’t have a freshman football program at the school. Due to budget issues, a lot of cuts have been made in our middle school programs. Losing freshman football really hurt the varsity program. We’re playing with 30 or 35 kids on the varsity team, and that’s not a whole lot.”
Woonsocket’s girls basketball program has also been successful in recent years, winning Division II and then Division I state titles in 2009-10. The Villa Novans made the playoffs again last winter and hope to do the same again this coming season.
The boys’ basketball program finally experienced a losing season last winter, the first under head coach Kyle Ivey-Jones, who led the Novans within one basket of the Division I state title back in 2008.
“I think last year was a big learning experience for Kyle,” Nasuti admitted. “I was concerned for him. We’ve talked a few times. I think he has recovered well. It was a tough season. Last year’s group was talented but lacked discipline. It was a setback for the program. I think we’ll see a better team within the next two years.”
Woonsocket’s most consistent varsity program might be the indoor and outdoor track and field teams, both boys and girls. Sophomore Kaylnn Pitts, one of several elite athletes in the program, won the high jump title as a freshman and took the triple jump title this past June. She also placed third and fourth, respectively, in the New England championships.
“We’ve always had a strong track program,” Nasuti said. “We’re getting a lot of participation from our student-athletes. We’ve had state champions. Track isn’t an expensive sport so there are a lot of opportunities for kids to come out and participate. One of the other things that helped the track program is having athletes from the football team run track in the winter and spring.”
Rising junior Jalen Evans, a star running back for the football team, proved to be one of the state’s best sprinters while competing for the track teams in the winter and spring.
Nasuti, a former football coach, serves as captain of the ship when it comes to WHS’s interscholastic sports program. He goes down his checklist for each sport, beginning with the coaching staff.
“We’re looking for a few coaches,” he admitted. “Our girls volleyball program doesn’t have a head coach with practice less than a month away. We’re having trouble finding teachers who will coach volleyball.
“We also need to find a girls soccer assistant coach for the varsity team. We’re trying to establish a girls soccer program at the middle school level, if we can find a volunteer coach. We have a good group of girls in middle school who want to play.”
Any youth soccer coaches with certification credentials would be eligible to coach the middle school team, Nasuti said.
“We can get them certified with the Interscholastic League,” the athletic director said. “Many youth soccer coaches have certifications through the local organizations. Soccer does a good job in certifying its youth coaches. We can do the rest. We just have to have someone come forward to help us get the middle school girls on the field.”
Nasuti is also advertising for a varsity boys hockey coach but at least he has the benefit of time in filling this position. Hockey practice doesn’t begin until late November.
“Our challenge is to maintain the entire interscholastic program at Woonsocket,” Nasuti said. “We’ve managed to raise money to offset some expenses. We’ve been counting on volunteer coaches and fundraising to fill needs in our programs. The last two years, we were uncertain of whether the School Committee would be able to find room in its budget for our sports program. I would say it’s still uncertain going into this year. You never know when the phone is going to ring. I haven’t heard anything yet. I’m planning on starting the school year with the same budget as last year.
“The community has really been behind us,” Nasuti said, thinking back to the budget crisis of the past two summers. “It’s a little more difficult now to raise money because of the economic situation we’re all in. I have one fundraiser, a calendar lottery, that raises a few thousand dollars. We run this lottery in October. People can buy tickets and then we have a money prize for each day of the month.”
Nasuti is hopeful the Woonsocket High varsity sports programs will remain intact for the coming season.
“It would be devastating for this city and the young people who attend the high school if we didn’t have a varsity sports program,” he said.