Pigskin fans offer to pay for a team of their own

Parents, kids plead with Hopewell Valley school board for football.

By: John Tredrea
   An offer meant to be hard to refuse was made at Tuesday night’s Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education meeting.
   HIKE, a vigorous supporter of starting an interscholastic football program at Hopewell Valley Central High School — the only Group III high school in the state without a football team — has offered to pay all the costs, including busing to the field, for the first two years. The money would be raised through donations.
   Under the proposal, HIKE, Hopewell Involved in Kids’ Enrichment, would pay 75 percent of the cost of football the third year and 50 percent the fourth year. The school district would assume all costs in the fifth year, and thereafter, under the HIKE proposal.
   Noting that an independent feasibility study commissioned by the school district early last year estimated the first-year cost of football at $53,000, HIKE says it will pay the district $60,000 for the first year and $60,000 for the second. It would drop to $45,000 in the third year and to $30,000 in the fourth.
   The board took no action on the matter Tuesday night.
   A ballot question seeking voter approval to spend $53,000 to start a football program for the 2001-2002 school year was defeated by a better than 2-to-1 margin in the April 2001 school district election.
   The members of HIKE’s executive committee, Kris Kley, Michael Foster, George Helmstetter, Patty Arhontoulis and Greg Myers, brought the proposal to the school board meeting. They were accompanied by dozens of youths — many of whom play in the local Pop Warner Football League — and their parents, who vigorously applauded statements made in favor of bringing interscholastic football to Hopewell Valley, which last fielded a high school gridiron unit in 1932.
   "I couldn’t do other fall sports, but I love football," said Matthew Bartlett of Hopewell Township, who played several seasons with Pop Warner. He said football "teaches self-discipline, teamwork and time management, skills we can use all our lives. Football is a life experience."
   Pausing for a moment as he searched for the right words for his conclusion, Matthew declared in a ringing, emotionally charged voice: "Please give us football!" The room erupted with applause and cheers from other supporters of bringing the sport back here on the high school level after a 70-year absence.
   Timberlane Middle School student Chris Weidl of Hopewell Borough told the school board he’s been playing organized football for seven years. He said his family has decided to send him to Notre Dame High School in Lawrence next year, so he can play football, if Hopewell Valley does not start a team. "It’s killing me to leave my school and my friends," he said. "I’d love to stay here and play football here with my friends."
   Chris’ mother, Susan Weidl, said it will cost about $7,500 annually to send her son to Notre Dame. Asked why the family had decided to spend that amount of money so he can play football, she answered: "Because he loves it and wants to play very badly. It’s his passion."
   She said her son will go to Hopewell Valley Central High School if a football program is started here.
   Several other youngsters also implored the school board to accept HIKE’s offer. One of them, eighth-grader Tim Reside, said: "I won’t be able to go to a private school. I hope you start football here. I’ve played for several years. It’s made me more determined and athletic and I really enjoy it. I’m not good at other fall sports."
   HIKE’s proposal includes giving the high school football team a place to play. The team could use the Pop Warner field at the Hopewell Township municipal complex. George Helmstetter of HIKE said Ewing High School and South Hunterdon High School have indicated they might share their fields with Hopewell Valley as well.
   Greg Myers of HIKE said the money the nonprofit has offered to the school district would come with no strings attached. "We’d give the school district the money in May," he said. "The school district would run the program, do the scheduling, select coaches and players."
   Under HIKE’s proposal, football would be started in the fall of 2002, with a sub-varsity program open to boys in grades 9-12. "They’d probably play junior varsity teams from other schools," said Mark Clements of HIKE and president of the Hopewell Valley Pop Warner Football League since it started here three years ago.
   Of the HIKE proposal, Mr. Clements said: "This is a heck of an opportunity for our kids and heck of a step up to the plate by their parents."
   Ms. Kley of HIKE said the money the organization would give the district would come from donations made by residents, many of them parents of youngsters who want to play football.
   HIKE says that, in the second year of the program, a freshman team could be added to the sub-varsity team. In the third year, the high school would field a varsity, junior varsity and freshman team, the norm for schools that have football programs.
   These and other details of the program would be decided on by school officials, including the school board and administrators, including director of athletics Kevin Murphy.
   Superintendent Robert Sopko said he will meet soon with members of HIKE, Mr. Murphy and Central High School Principal John Bach to discuss the HIKE proposal. Starting a football program would require an affirmative vote from the school board.