Coach Joe Gilmartin had read all the print media accounts; seen the TV reports on networks like ESPN and CBS. They all were concluding high school football in America is in trouble.
Citing National High School Federation statistics, the stories chronicled how the participation numbers in American high school football had been declining for the past decade, especially over the past five years. Some of the reports claimed the participation drop has been especially significant in economically up-scale suburban communities like North Kingstown.
To a veteran high school football coach like Gilmartin, who has spent 25 years on the sidelines of high school football fields, the reports of doom and gloom for high school football could be troubling.
But then Gilmartin looks at the roster of his North Kingstown High football program and a smile comes to his face. Listed on that roster are the names of 108 North Kingstown students in grades 9-12.
So, is American high school football in trouble? I asked Gilmartin recently.
“It’s tough to say that with 100 kids out here,” Gilmartin said with a grin as he looked-out over North Kingstown practice fields filled with enthusiastic teenagers.
North Kingstown isn’t a West Texas community where high school football is the only game in town during the autumn months.
Almost every fall North Kingstown has one of the top boys soccer teams in the R.I. Interscholastic League, highlighted by a 2017 Division I regular season title and the 2014 Division I state title. Also, the North Kingstown boys cross country team won Southern Division regular season titles in three of the past four fall seasons, including last year’s title.
North Kingstown is a town loaded with talented student athletes and a lot of Skippers have decided they love playing high school football.
“We are fortunate the community trusts us with their kids,” said Gilmartin.
Gilmartin started coaching high school football in 1983 as an assistant to former North Kingstown coach Joe Mancini. He coached for 12 years as an assistant to long-time, former North Kingstown head coach Keith Kenyon until the late 1990s. He then was a head coach at a Massachusetts high school before leaving the sidelines for a few years.
While he was away from North Kingstown the Skippers were suffering through some difficult times on the gridiron. For three consecutive years, 2008-2011, North Kingstown didn’t win a game in R.I Interscholastic Division I regular season competition, a combined league record of 0-24.
“The coach here during most of that time was a good coach. He had been successful everywhere else he had coached. But he didn’t have anyone on his staff who taught or worked here at the school. You don’t really have a chance if you don’t have people on your staff who are at the school during the school day,” said Gilmartin
In 2011 Gilmartin came back to teach at North Kingstown. The following fall he also took over as the Skippers head football coach. By that time, because of its poor combined record over the previous four years, North Kingstown had been dropped down from Division I to a Division II level of competition.
No matter how good a coach you are you don’t rebuild a high school football program overnight. So, in Gilmartin’s first year as head coach the Skippers struggled to a 1-6 record in Division II. But before long Gilmartin had the Skippers enjoying victory celebrations again. In 2013 North Kingstown enjoyed its first winning football season in five years with a 5-2 record in Division II. The following year they were undefeated in regular season Division II play. From 2013 to 2017 the Skippers posted a combined regular season Division II record of 30-5. The highlight of that string was an undefeated Division II state title season in 2017. It was the first time North Kingstown had won a state Super Bowl title game in the 45-year history of the R.I. Interscholastic League’s playoff system.
Last season the Skippers were moved back up to Division I and the winning continued. They finished the regular season with a 5-1 record then posted three straight victories in the playoffs en route to Division I Super Bowl title.
Graduation costs Gilmartin some talented players from last year’s championship team so the Skippers second season back in Division I this fall could be a challenge. But then a lot of people expected the Skippers would have serious problems in Division I last year after having lost several key members of the 2017 Division II state championship team and they brought home another championship in 2018.
“I don’t know if we have all the pieces to be terrific, but we have some good players ready to step in,” Gilmartin offered about the 2019 Skippers. “We had some great players on last year’s team who graduated, but we had some very good younger players last year who couldn’t get on the field because of who was in front of them. Now it’s their chance.”
One thing the Skippers definitely will have is plenty of players.
“We had 48 incoming freshman sign-up for football and 40 were at the first day of practice,” said Gilmartin
A well- established local Pop Warner tackle youth program has been a good feeder system to the high school team for decades. But North Kingstown also may be at the forefront of what could be a key to the survival of American high school football.
“The town recreation department also runs a flag football league that has about 400 kids involved. There are 100 six-year olds, 100 eight-year olds and so on,” Gilmartin related. “They are all being introduced to the game of football. I think the biggest detriment to football is contact over time. This way kids are learning the game without the tackling. “
“When they get to high school a lot of them want to play football because football is an exciting game There is a flag-to-tackle transition program for players in the spring before they start high school. Our job, when they get here, is to try and give them the most positive experience they can have.”
He’s a veteran coach, but Gilmartin knows the game, especially at the high school level, needs to evolve if it is going to survive. That means coaches need to be constantly changing the way they teach the game.
“It’s not about big hits any more. We don’t teach that way anymore; we don’t highlight them when we are reviewing game films,” said Gilmartin. “We teach – you do what you need to do to get the ball carrier on the ground. If you get him on the ground, I don’t care what it looks like. If we run to the ball and get him on the ground, we are going to win the game”
Even Gilmartin’s coaching staff is a little unconventional.
“I think a lot of our success is because of the people we have here,” added Gilmartin. “My assistant coaches are tremendous. Not one person on my staff coached football before they came here. What we are looking for is people who care about kids. I have a guy who was a youth basketball coach. He knew how to teach drills and I saw how he talked to kids. We could teach him football, but you can’t teach those personal skills that make him really effective helping the kids get better.”
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