WOONSOCKET — Not very long ago, Woonsocket High School’s athletic department was a source of great pride, with a tradition of team success being carried over from one season to the next.
Accompanying that tradition were good vibes extending throughout the student body and the whole community. To that end, the school’s athletic director and No. 1 supporter vividly remembers a January 2008 boys’ basketball game involving the hometown entry and perennial state power Bishop Hendricken at Savaria Gymnasium.
The Villa Novans won a tight, hard-fought battle against the Hawks, yet that’s not the only detail George Nasuti remembers. The stands were nearly at capacity and included a strong showing number of young people rooting on their classmates.
“It was a group that really loved their school,” said Nasuti while sitting in his high school office, one that’s as narrow as a bowling lane and plastered with Woonsocket keepsakes and mementos.
Fast forward to the present day. To put it mildly, “Novan Pride” is noticeably lacking.
The student-athletes of the Class of 2013 have been at the center of a four-year cycle that started off under an ominous cloud. Back in the summer of 2009, sports at Woonsocket stood on the threshold of elimination. Though the threats of budgetary oblivion eventually subsided, and football, baseball, basketball, etc. were taken off the chopping block, there was enough of a scare that incoming freshmen and their parents had to wonder if and when another crisis could arise – and at a moment’s notice.
As that class matriculated into the higher grade levels, they’ve seen a steady decline that has reached its nadir during the 2012-13 school year. Heading into the spring sports season, Woonsocket has produced just one varsity team that finished above .500 in league play. That distinction belongs to Carnell Henderson’s football crew that ended the season as Division II runners-up.
This year, two Novan teams failed to post a single league win, while eight sports finished with exactly one league triumph against an avalanche of losses. The past four years have seen girls’ volleyball win just six league games. The hockey program has endured three straight one-win seasons. Even the aforementioned boys’ basketball team – arguably Woonsocket High’s most popular sport – has fallen on hard times; this past season marked its third consecutive 1-17 Division I posting.
The current state of affairs makes the back-to-back championships earned in girls’ basketball (2008-09 & 2009-10) and football (2009 & 2010) seem like they took place a lifetime ago rather than just a few years back.
What can be done to restore luster to a vital part of the school’s fabric and identity? In a lengthy, candid interview, Nasuti addresses several items of imminent concern, including what the future holds for someone who bleeds the school’s colors.
“We’re at a crossroads and I’m worried about the athletic program,” he cautions.
Nasuti agrees that the tipping point to Woonsocket’s current malaise dates back to 2009, when the athletics program was fighting for its survival. There was much rejoicing upon learning sports would be spared, but it didn’t take long for that relief to wane.
“We knew financially that we had some troubles and we rallied the town and everybody supported everybody,” recalls Nasuti. “Then the money went down rapidly.”
“Bare bones” conveys a sense of the budget that Nasuti has to work within this year. With 23 varsity teams plus junior varsity and freshmen sports to consider, one can only imagine how quickly funds dry up. Middle school sports are not factored into the budget as they are based purely on fundraising efforts.
The athletic director calls this year’s finances “the lowest budget in quite some time. I’ve been nickel and diming it, but I don’t mind. It just can’t go any lower.”
To his credit, Nasuti has refused to be a passive victim in the face of limited monetary aid. Last spring, he organized the first-ever all-encompassing fundraiser geared to assist all Woonsocket public school sports. The event at Ciro’s Tavern on Cherry yielded a positive response and has given way to another charity event – a Novan-themed 5K Road Race and Walk scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 22 (details to follow).
Support for school sports has been pledged by select members of the City Council and School Committee, who say they’ll take necessary measures within their power to make sure there’s not a repeat of 2009. But the city’s purse strings are now controlled by a state-appointed Budget Commission. Nasuti therefore welcomes any opportunity to appear before that panel and explain why money for sports is needed.
“There’s a fear something could happen tomorrow,” said Nasuti, who has had a few private sessions with the Budget Commission. “Without telling me, I could see an article in the paper that says ‘School sports dropped.’ Then I have to go through (this nightmare) again.”
Nasuti says he can make do with a shoestring budget. What frustrates him more is the growing apathy that grips the hallways at the big building on Cass Ave.
Numbers are down in several sports. Girls’ basketball had 14 players between the varsity and J.V. levels by season’s end, with baseball suiting up 28 bodies between the two rungs, by far the lowest sum Nasuti can recall. Track and field is also experiencing a decline; Nasuti noted that participation nowadays ranges between 25 and 30 athletes.
(While other ice hockey programs in similar straits have folded – Pawtucket’s Tolman High being the most recent example – Nasuti assures that Woonsocket’s numbers are stable enough for the team to continue playing next season. Right now, 15 players are expected back along with the possible influx of 5-6 freshmen.)
“Kids today are frontrunners for the most part. They don’t have the spirit. It’s not cool to be a Villa Novan and it’s not a goal of theirs,” said Nasuti. “There’s a very blasé attitude and no spirit whatsoever. Not just in the schools, but the city.”
While Woonsocket’s still-fresh success on the hardwood and gridiron provided a shot of adrenaline, it also came with a hefty price. During the Rhode Island Interscholastic League’s last round of realignment, the Villa Novans were bumped up to Division I in field hockey, wrestling, baseball and softball. Woonsocket’s boys’ and girls’ basketball programs already reside in the state’s top tier.
“We’re playing hard and representing the school, but we’re going to continue to struggle,” said Nasuti. His high school may feature the highest enrollment figure in the state, but such a distinction isn’t presently translating to athletic fraternization or achievement.
There’s a chance a new proposal on division structure will be brought before the Principals’ Committee on Athletics when the group meets again in June. Yet even if the tweaks allow Woonsocket to remain in a league where they have a fighting chance, there’s still the issue of having enough contributors.
Nasuti’s fundraising campaign has focused extensively on preserving the middle school and freshmen programs. Presently, Woonsocket features baseball, softball and boys’ and girls’ basketball at the junior high level. For ninth graders, there’s football along with boys’ and girls’ basketball.
His belief is that the only way to ensure a strong future for Novan athletics is to provide today’s up-and-comers with more chances to become involved. That way, once they reach high school, they’re not a small fish in a big pond.
“If I had it my way, I’d have more freshmen teams; we need baseball and soccer teams. We don’t have middle school soccer, so the (high school) boys’ and girls’ teams don’t have a feeder program,” said Nasuti. “I think we need to keep the bulk of the eighth graders playing with a handful of younger kids who are willing to move up. We have to make sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle academically, socially and athletically once they reach high school.”
If kids are cut as freshmen, the prospect of them trying again the following year is dim, Nasuti feels. In order for ninth-grade sports to serve a purpose, the body count needs to range between 20 and 25. This too is wishful thinking at this point in time.
“Sports have always been viewed as a gateway to pride. If people are feeling good about sports, chances are they’re feeling good about the school and the community,” Nasuti remarked. “Right now, we’re not getting the athletes to play multiple sports.”
The adults also factor prominently in Nasuti’s prognosis for curing his ailing program. From parents, to the coaches he supervises, to himself, Nasuti feels that everyone needs to ramp up the effort and fast.
“Parents aren’t committed to taking kids to events, so the kids won’t come. They think that athletics is a burden,” Nasuti says sadly.
On the subject of his coaches, Nasuti has implored them to get out in the community more. He notes that Henderson has done a great job in fostering team unity. More Villa Novan bosses not only need to follow the football coach’s lead, but extend further.
“If interest doesn’t pick up and if my coaches don’t get involved in promoting our programs, we’re in trouble,” Nasuti said. “They have to be at Little League games or running weight training or clinics. Get to (physical education) classes. There’s nothing better than a varsity coach watching you at a Little League game.”
Speaking about his role as primary overseer, the 52-year-old Nasuti acknowledged that as 30-plus veteran of the school system, he’s eligible to retire this coming June. Given the current economic climate, he may face little choice in the matter.
“I want to stay forever,” expressed Nasuti, who besides serving as Woonsocket’s athletic director in a part-time capacity is also the District Administrator for Teacher Evaluations; previously he served as the Principal at Bernon Heights Elementary School. In addition, he’s also tied to several RIIL-related committees.
For now at least, Nasuti is focused on the business at hand. Even with the odds stacked against him and his athletic legions, he knows “Novan Pride” still matters. The question is: how many more share his sentiment?
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03