Column: Sandwich coach Kris Cassie goes back to rebuilding football program after season is canceled

It seemed to be business as usual for kriscassie Monday morning at Sandwich, but of course, it wasn’t.

And that is very bad.

The routine every August since the 2001-02 school year, when Cassie started working at the school, has been the same.

On the first day of football practice, he would be involved in some way with the program, whether it was as an assistant coach, four years as athletic director, or the last four as head coach.

He returned to the practice field Monday, albeit briefly, before lightning with a brewing storm sent about 30 players and coaches into the weight room.

However, it was not the same.

Earlier this summer, district officials made the unpleasant decision to cancel this year’s college season due to lack of numbers. Only six seniors expressed interest in June when Cassie and her staff began summer contact days.

“The same thing happened with the sophomores who were going to be juniors,” he said. “There were only six.”

Promoting every sophomore or even some freshmen wasn’t an answer either, district officials wisely decided. Outclassed rookies and sophomores don’t have to fight veterans.

The pandemic didn’t help either.

“COVID has done some work on our show,” Cassie said.

When the 2020 season was shortened to six games and pushed back until spring, Sandwich followed protocols that prevented the Indians from playing two of those games.

And then last fall, Sandwich was only able to play six of its nine scheduled games, limiting the experience for players still on the schedule.

“We lost two-thirds of our games,” Cassie said.

Sandwich isn’t the only high school in Illinois clamping down.

In late July, Port Byron Riverdale in Rock County canceled its season with only seven varsity players expected to return. And last week, Fisher in Champaign County did the same thing, with just six college players on the roster.

Those schools, with enrollments of 337 and 176, respectively, are considerably smaller than Sandwich, which the Illinois High School Association lists at 623 students.

Declining participation in traditional soccer has also led 29 high schools across the state to now offer eight-player soccer.

That group includes the Parkville Christian area programs in Yorkville and Harvest Academy in Elgin, as well as Kirkland Hiawatha, which participates in the Little Ten Conference in other sports.

Sandwich, Port Byron and Fisher plan to play a JV program this fall, hoping to resume college play next year.

Cassie, who has eight games scheduled for Sandwich, looks for a ninth opponent.

“We have good numbers at the freshman and sophomore levels,” said Cassie, who continued weightlifting and summer programs with the players she has left in the program. “Last Monday, we were invited to Bears camp.”

He’s also encouraged by the good numbers in Sandwich’s youth tackle program.

“One of the classes has 35 kids and several others have 30,” Cassie said. “A lot of the dads that train in that program are players that I coached.”

Cassie and her staff continue to work with that program as well, hoping to build for the future.

“My heart really goes out to older people who want to play,” Cassie said. “The decision was made out of concern for the safety of the players.”

It certainly wasn’t easy.

The JV will open the season at 11am on August 27 against Geneseo. The Indians will play on several different days of the week.

“We’re going to train the best players,” Cassie said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I have to move on.”

It’s all you can do.

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