Dansville, Wayland-Cohocton football: From rivals to teammates? What to know

Wayland-Cohocton and Dansville hold public forums to discuss combination of football programs

Sean Curran
The Evening Tribune
Dansville Superintendent Dr. Paul Alioto sets up a presentation on the merger of the Dansville and Way-Co football programs on Wednesday in Dansville.

Over the past several years, nearly every rural school district across the State of New York has seen a significant drop in their enrollment rates, which leads directly to a drop in athletic participation.

As a result, several school districts have sought creative ways to keep their athletic programs alive, mainly by combining programs with another school district in order to keep students active and provide them with all of the normal opportunities they would have.

The latest pair of schools to explore this avenue are former rivals who are now about to turn into teammates in Wayland-Cohocton and Dansville. Because of the low enrollment rates and fewer signups for football in the coming season, both the Mustangs and the Golden Eagles have decided to combine their programs into a larger program at both the JV and varsity levels.

This decision did not come together hastily, as both programs have employed every resource available to them over the past several years in an attempt to recruit more players to sign up and then keep them in the program. But unfortunately, all of their efforts were not able to solve the problem, and it has become clear that combining programs was the only way to save football in the immediate future.

“Obviously, football is tough because it requires a lot of kids to be able to play it," said Way-Co head coach Darren Knapp. "Ideally, you would have 30-plus kids at three different levels. But then your enrollment declines, and then the Covid situation didn’t help. Before Covid, I thought we were doing okay, but that really stymied what we could do with the kids. But that’s not the only reason, there are a lot of things that happen, and we get what we get here. We can’t recruit kids from other schools, so we have to work with the kids who are already in the school.

“When it comes to recruiting, we give them a lot of opportunities," added Knapp. "We get in the weight room, we do a thing called breakfast club where we come in before school, and we had always had great attendance at that. But to not have enough students to fill a JV team, that was tough. We tried a lot things to keep kids involved, like we did a program where if you did enough lifts over the summer, we would go to Bills Training Camp. We did that for a few years. But none of this seemed to cure the issue.”

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The entire process was presented in a pair of public forums this week, with administrators, athletic directors and coaches from both schools hoping to show the communities exactly why this was such a strong idea. The team stopped at Wayland-Cohocton on Tuesday evening and then a similar presentation was given at Dansville on Wednesday to address any questions or concerns that community members might have.

And while the initial reaction from many community members was to be doubtful, it quickly became clear to all in attendance that this was a situation that would not only benefit all of the student-athletes involved, but was also a necessary decision to keep football alive in both communities.

“Our number one goal is to provide kids the opportunity for whatever they have an interest in," said Dansville Athletic Director Dave Moodie. "We have a lot of students who are interested in playing football, we just don’t have enough to do it independently. By merging with Wayland, who is in a similar situation as us, it gives them the opportunity to play football, which is the ultimate goal. And then the next step to that is to be more competitive. I can tell you that the students are excited about that. They are excited to have the opportunity to play football as well as the opportunity to be more competitive. And when you here that passion from the students, who are the ones who are going to be putting in the effort, not only am I in support of it, I’m encouraged by it." 

A similar message was conveyed at Wayland-Cohocton. 

“This is about giving our students opportunities and to see them thrive and become young adults," said Way-Co Superintendent Eileen Feinman. "There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from an athletic field, and we have great role models. Look at the individuals who have participated in our football program here in previous years. They know what it means to be able to put on a uniform and express some pride and compete and build relationships and memories. I think this is a fantastic opportunity for our kids." 

Wayland-Cohocton Superintendent addresses the community at the beginning of the public forum held on Tuesday evening during a meeting to discus the merger of the football program.

Both parties also stated that they recognized the long history of a great rivalry between the two schools, known as the "Backyard Brawl," but that this merger would be a success because of the great amount of respect that the rivalry was built upon.

“I think Livingston County has those Friday night rivalries, but they are just rivals for a couple of hours. At the end of the day, you respect your neighbor," said Way-Co Athletic Director Bob Toland. "You want to see what happens on Friday night, but come Saturday, you are friends again. I’m from Caledonia-Mumford, and being from a small town like that I remember how special those Friday nights were to make memories, but we are still playing Livingston County football. Mergers are a sign of the times, and it’s the nature of sports in our small, rural towns. This was a long time coming, but we are definitely doing this for the right reasons." 

Since formalizing these merger plans and moving forward with all the paperwork has begun, the coaches and athletic directors have also informed the players of the news. According to both head coaches, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the students are looking forward to working together and building a new winning program.

“From the little bit that we’ve seen so far where we had a small joint practice, it was like they weren’t even from different schools," said Knapp. "They know each other, they compete against each other in different sports. There are also a lot of youth sports traveling teams, so a lot of these kids have played together. Back in the day where social media didn’t exist, how would you even interact with those kids other than playing against them on the playing field. You didn’t have a car to drive down there, there was no method to interact. But with social media, you can do it just like that. So I think this is going to be a great experience for our guys, and they are into it. And that’s all that matters in my mind." 

“I think the communities are so similar," said Dansville head coach Rich Welch. "The kids — even from just two days of working together — they are getting along just fine. That’s no surprise because the kids just want to go out there and do the best that they can. It doesn’t hurt that we haven’t played in almost four years either. So the fire was dampened on the rivalry a little bit before this. It was not on purpose, it was just the way the schedule worked out from Section V. We’ve had teams in the past that have really battled, and this is just going to allow us to continue to battle.”

With the players informed, the coaches ready to begin practice and the excitement building, the only thing left to do is get the official approval from the Board of Educations as well as Section V. But the coaches and administrators are confident that the approval will come thanks to all of the positive feedback and hard work put in by those who have developed this plan.

“I will discuss the outcomes of both forums with my Board of Education. We will make a presentation to the Board of Education on July 27, and we will be asking them to approve the merger agreements that we’ve discussed tonight,” said Dansville Superintendent Dr. Paul Alioto.

“We presented to our Board of Education last week and had very good support from them," added Feinman. "Dr. Alioti will also be presenting very similar information to his Board of Education, and we believe they are going to have just as much support for their kids to participate that we did. We have to complete an application to Section V in order to do the merger, and we would just go through with the paperwork and make it happen."

When all of that is done, the only thing left to do will be to play football. And both school district superintendents, athletic directors and coaching staffs were all extremely excited to give students what is best for them, which is an opportunity to play football, compete at a high level and grow into adults while doing it.

“This is great. I think it’s my 12th or 13th year coaching in Wayland, and I’ve seen teams that have won sectional championships and I’ve seen teams that didn’t win any games," said Knapp. "Through all of it, the boys always walked away with a great experience from the program. Each year is special and has great memories, but the years where we were competitive, those are the ones you remember forever. To be able to provide that to our kids and be involved in it is really exciting. I think this is a really exciting thing, and we are blessed." 

“We get to be a part of a good thing, and when you look at it, it’s just about providing opportunities," added Welch. "Whenever you have a chance to give a kid an opportunity, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why we are all in education and coaching. You want to do what is best for the kids, and we wholeheartedly believe this is it or else we wouldn’t be doing it." 

Sean Curran can be reached at scurran@gannett.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.