As recently as 2018, the second year of the varsity football merger between Canajoharie and Fort Plain, head coach Shannon Hyney’s program was flush with numbers, boasting 60 players from grades 9-12 to fill out the varsity and JV rosters.
As he prepares for the upcoming fall season, Hyney has seen that number crunched by more than half.
“Our numbers this year are extremely low,” Hyney said. “Probably the lowest I’ve ever seen them.”
Canajoharie/Fort Plain has just 24 players of high school age heading into this season, which is scheduled to open Sept. 11 at Cambridge.
A number of factors, Hyney said, have contributed to the shrinking roster.
“A few years ago, we had 60 kids,” Hyney said. “We’ve got kids playing fall baseball, we’ve got kids that are working, we’ve got kids that have come to me because of the COVID situation where they don’t want to wear a mask or they’re worried about the vaccination, and they’re not playing.
“We knew [our numbers would be low] a couple years ago. Our junior class, we only have three kids that are playing. A lot of kids either moved out of the area, or just aren’t playing — not just football, they’re playing nothing across the board. We’re battling that, and it seems like a lot of schools across Montgomery and Fulton counties are battling the same thing.”
Add in a couple of injuries to potential starters incurred during the summer, and Canajoharie/Fort Plain will be short on depth and experience this fall.
The team went 2-2 this past March and April after the football season was moved to the “Fall II” period because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Canajoharie/Fort Plain bookended its season with convincing wins over Helderberg Valley and Cohoes, with losses to Stillwater and Chatham in the middle.
A little more than four months later, the Canajoharie/Fort Plain team that kicks off its Section II Class D schedule this fall will look vastly different.
As the reality of low turnout set in, Hyney and his coaching staff were faced with a choice: Let the program’s ninth-graders play down at the varsity level, potentially putting the team’s chances to field a minimum roster of 16 eligible varsity players in jeopardy, or bring those young players up early and risk a difficult season.
Ultimately, after consulting with the players, the latter was chosen.
“We’re going to bring them up, and they’re going to have to play,” Hyney said. “They’re going to be rotated in, they’re going to get playing time.”
Hyney’s team will have some experience to work with. Zach Suits returns as Canajoharie/Fort Plain’s starting quarterback, while Evan Smida and Zachary Herget will split work in the backfield as the team replaces productive workhorse running back Max Prime. La Anthony Fairley’s return to the program after some time away from football gives the team a potentially explosive option at wide receiver, and Hyney is optimistic about a core group of returning players in the trenches.
“We can lean on a couple things here,” Hyney said. “We’ve got a few key pieces that we’ve got to try and match in. . . . We’re going to be leaning on Suits, Herget, Smida, and a couple of our key senior linemen.”
When Canajoharie/Fort Plain hosts Warrensburg on Sept. 17, it’ll be the program’s first true home game since the 2018 season. Construction on the track around the Canajoharie football field made the facility unavailable in 2019, and C/FP played its most recent home games during the “Fall II” season at Amsterdam and Fonda-Fultonville — neutral sites with artificial turf.
Hyney is hopeful that a return to a true home field will help spark some more energy in the program and lessen potential concerns over low numbers in the future.
“I think the kids are ready. They understand what’s needed of them at this point,” he said. “I’ve never seen it like this. In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen it like this. . . . Obviously, we need a bigger push. We’ve only got three Fort Plain kids, so we need a bigger push from Fort Plain.”