Central/Watseka Football

Watseka High School’s Drew Wittenborn carries the ball as Central High School’s Jay Lemenager moves in for the tackle during a game last spring. The two teams were set to square off again Friday, before Watseka announced Wednesday it would be canceling the remainder of its varsity season.

WATSEKA — The football season at Watseka Community High School has come to an earlier-than-anticipated conclusion.

The school administration announced Wednesday that the football team will be canceling the remainder of the varsity football season, effective immediately.

The Warriors’ nine-game season was set to conclude Oct. 22, and their homecoming game was held last Friday, a 28-6 loss to Hoopeston.

Citing issues which led to a low number of varsity football players, Watseka athletic director Barry Bauer said in the press release that it was “obviously a very tough decision to make for everyone involved.”

“But we felt based on an abundance of season-ending injuries, low student participation, and numerous other contributing factors, this decision is in the best interest of the program and for the current athletes,” Bauer stated. “We apologize for all of the inconveniences that this will cause our remaining opponents.”

Iroquois CUSD superintendent Dr. David Andriano said that out of the 22 players that were currently on the varsity team, nearly half of them were freshmen, something that put both player safety and program development at risk.

“I think the first thing you ever want to talk about is safety and making sure our kids aren’t going to get hurt ...,” Andriano said. “And when we’re doing that at the varsity level, the freshmen aren’t getting many chances to play, so it’s a double whammy.

“We can’t play a [junior varsity] game on Monday and a varsity game on Friday because we don’t have enough kids, and then [the freshmen] miss out on their experiences,” he added. “From a safety perspective we want to take care of the kids, and from a program perspective we want to make sure the kids can grow, learn and have those experiences.”

Football teams across the state have smaller roster sizes than in past years, which along with COVID-19, has helped lead to at least nine forfeits in each of the first four weeks of the football season.

Andriano said that there were no COVID-19 outbreaks or contact tracing issues that led to low numbers, but he did note that the pandemic, along with the 2020-21 season being played in the spring, might show the pandemic had an indirect impact on the current situation.

Former Watseka football coach Aaron Hilgendorf left for Mascoutah at the end of the season, and former assistant Stephen Rigsby was promoted late in the summer. Also last year, the team lost 19 seniors.

This season’s roster featured four seniors — Kage Brault, Chase Walwer, David Netzband and Shannon Woods — all of whom saw their prep football careers come to a premature end with the decision.

“They’ve gone through the program and are the backbone, and it’s supposed to be their time to shine,” Andriano said. “That’s heartbreaking to have to tell a senior that their season is over.”

And as someone with football deeply entwined into his background in administration, he said he understands how much the Watseka community might be hurting with Wednesday’s announcement.

“Those kids that are in the program are building character, not just on the field, but every day — you live it, you walk it and you show it with your actions,” Andriano said. “It makes a huge difference in their lives, and they have people like coach Rigsby, [assistant coach] John Anderson, quality people that I would love for my kids to be under and to have been coached by.

“They’re great people that care about the kids, not just football, and that’s how you build a program.”

While the varsity season has been canceled, the junior varsity team will finish the final four games on its schedule, as the school hopes to continue rebuilding a program that first began football in 1897, according to IHSA records.

As the football program’s numbers have dwindled this fall, the enrollment number at the high school has seen a slight bump this school year, sitting at 312 for 2021-22 after 293 last year, a five-year low. The K-12 district-wide enrollment climbed back up to 876 this year, a 4.1% increase from last year’s 840, but still more than 100 less than the 977 students the district had in 2017-18.

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.