By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
UPPER LAKE — At 4:45 p.m., Upper Lake High School soccer players Nick Stith, Thomas Santana, Greg Gagnon, Ian Seevers and Nick Bills left the practice field where they had worked for the previous 75 minutes.
They were about to become football players for Upper Lake High School.
“At first I thought this idea was crazy,” said Bills, a quarterback, fullback, tailback, linebacker on the football team, a forward on the soccer team.
Check out the boys in action here
The five players headed to the locker room, removed their soccer clothes and put on their football duds — helmet, pads and pants. The players joined the other 18 football players already practicing on the baseball outfield. They had been there for 30 minutes.
“Confused” is the reaction Greg Gagnon said he gets when he tells players from other teams that the head coaches of Upper Lake’s football and soccer teams share players. Gagnon is a defender in soccer and a tight end and safety in football. Nearly every week Gagnon plays a soccer game on Wednesday and a football game, usually on Saturday. Like the others Gagnon practices both sports three times a week.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” Bills said.
How all this came about, how the soccer and football teams came to cross-pollinate each other, the answer is the quintessential example of what we have heard for years: Necessity is the mother of invention.
A month ago football coach Alex Stabiner and soccer coach Kyle Moore were both facing a numbers crunch. At best, Stabiner would have only 18 players in pads; he’d have to hold full-contact scrimmages with at least four players missing, usually on defense.
“It’s tough practicing against air,” said Stabiner, knowing air doesn’t tackle or cover a wide receiver.
On the soccer field Moore had the same problem. The numbers aren’t there at most small schools and Upper Lake is a small school. No more than 320 kids attend here, said Stabiner, a social science teacher here.
Stabiner quickly reduced that number. Let’s assume half the kids are boys. That’s 160. Some boys don’t play sports. Some boys aren’t allowed to play football, parents fearing for their health. Some want to play but Upper Lake has three fall sports — football, soccer and cross country.
“Then you have kids who get in trouble or can’t make grades or don’t have a way home after practice,” Stabiner said.
Upper Lake is not a metropolitan area. Kids are spread out everywhere. Stith, for example, lives in the hills above Lucerne and it takes him 40 minutes to get to school each day.
A generous estimate: There might be 50 boys out of that 160 with the time, interest and energy for fall sports. It certainly is not a problem unique to Upper Lake. All small schools face small numbers.
So what to do?
Stabiner’s mind wandered to a time years ago, when he coached football at another high school. An opponent school was forced to combine athletes from different teams because seven players at once were kicked off one team because of a disciplinary problem. “Kyle and I jokingly raised the possibility and we let it go,” Stabiner said. “And then we didn’t let it go.”
The two coaches brought together the athletes from both teams four weeks ago. They told them of the situation. They said any football player would be free to practice soccer and play in a game. They said any soccer kid could play football.
“It would get complicated,” Stabiner said.
If a football game was to be played on a Saturday — which happens for all Upper Lake home games since the football field has no lights — a player couldn’t play soccer Friday night. It would be too physically demanding to play two disparate, high-intensity games back-to-back, in less than 24 hours no less.
Any football player could play soccer Wednesday night and would most likely do that, since he is practicing the sport three times a week.
If there was any conflict as to who should go where, Stabiner would get first choice.
Soccer practice would begin at 3:30. Football practice would begin at 4:15. At 4:45, the entire soccer team would come off the field, the football guys changing in the locker room and heading to the field, the rest of the soccer team would go into the gym for workout drills. Football practice would end around 6:15; soccer practice a little before that.
Santana, all 5-foot-11, 350 pounds of him, had been playing soccer since he was 5. He always wanted to play football.
“My size kinda made that obvious,” he said.
Bills never played soccer in his life. On a lark he accepted the offer.
“I gave someone a stiff-arm in my first soccer game,” Bills said, “and a teammate yelled at me, ‘You can’t stiff-arm someone in soccer!’”
Gagnon liked the idea of one sport could replenish the other.
“When I get bored,” Gagnon said of soccer, “I come over here (to football).”
Stith liked the idea that his size — 5-foot-3, 120 — while a possible asset in soccer for being quick and nimble would create a different kind of impact in football. “My teammates notice I’m a small guy who doesn’t back down,” Stith said. “They look up to me a little for that. It motivates them.”
Seevers found the two sports to enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
“I had a new respect for soccer because it’s more than just running around,” Seevers said. “And I think the soccer guys realize football is more than just hitting people. Stereotypes are eliminated.”
All five athletes found that playing both sports helped to minimize the frustration each sport has created. The soccer team is 3-12-1. The football team is 0-6, having scored just 28 points while surrendering 351.
The word most commonly used was “refreshing,” the idea that different activities with different tempos and different rules — hands to catch or hold a football versus not using the hands at all — helped reduce the time to dwell and daydream.
“I know that’s what I’m feeling too,” Stabiner said.
Of course the criticism of such a plan is that divided practices reduce potential success. Maybe Upper Lake won’t be as successful in soccer or football. But the idea of high school football, whether it’s here in the country or in the city — is not to produce NFL players or even a college athletic scholarship.
High school is a singular place in time that should produce a memory enjoyed and welcomed in adulthood that should produce fondness, not bitterness. Santana is feeling that.
“I also wrestle and throw the shot put,” said Santana, a senior. “Years from now I’ll be able to tell people I was a four-sport athlete in high school!”
And he played two of them at once. At once. Imagine the crowd that will gather around Santana at his 20th high school reunion when they find that out. Oh, how he might be tempted to exaggerate. Oh, how he should.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.