Vermont is not what you'd call a gridiron powerhouse when it comes to high school football. In national rankings, the Green Mountain State comes in dead last. But the passion for the game is as intense there as in any big state.
That passion is evident at Mount St. Joseph Academy, a Catholic high school with only 23 players on the roster and only 53 boys in the school. Yet the school not only fields a team, but it also refuses to budge from Division 1, meaning that the team plays schools with more than 10 times as many students.
At a recent game, what was once the greatest team in Vermont high school football history saw itself get torched by a fourth-down heave in a game against the St. Johnsbury Hilltoppers. After the first half, that one play was the only score. At halftime, Mount St. Joseph's Coach Chip Forte asked his players whether they were intimidated.
"Are these guys too tough?" Forte asked his team.
"No sir!" they replied.
It was a loaded question. Forte knew that just by being on the field, a two-hour bus ride north of the team's hometown of Rutland, his kids were showing their commitment. For the last two years, the players have told the coach where they stand: For them, it's Division 1 football all the way.
"They know the situation. These kids want to play D-1. There are certain kids that come to this school to play football, period," Forte says.
Hanging Onto Division 1 With Hope And Prayer
The decision to stay in Division 1 is part tradition, part faith.
The Mount St. Joseph team — or MSJ, as the team is known — has won 15 state championships since 1960. But today it seems to defy belief that a roster of 23 players — though only 13 or so see any playing time — can hang with Vermont's version of powerhouses.
Their biggest rival, Rutland High School, has about 45 players on the roster. The team has won about half of the last dozen state championships.
In their home opener, Rutland had stands filled with football fans on both sides of the Mount St. Joseph question.
"I think the best thing for the program, the best thing for the school, would be to drop down and play Division 2, re-establish their dominance, and when they're ready, come back to Division 1," says Joseph Krause, whose son plays for Rutland.
Krause is among those football aficionados who think of themselves as realists. The Vermont Principals' Association is in this camp: It sent Mount Saint Joseph a letter expressing concern about the team's thin roster. But other Rutland fans — like Chris Wheelis — admire MSJ.
"Being a Rutland fan, I respect them for wanting to hang around in the division and compete. I wish them luck," Wheelis says.
Can Mount St. Joseph Survive Without Division 1?
The idea that Mount St. Joseph should play football in Division 2 — or Division 3, as some suggest, based on the school's enrollment — is simply ludicrous to Ben Benedict, a senior at the school.
Benedict was zoned to attend a medium-sized public high school that played in Division 2. He opted to enroll at Mount St. Joseph instead specifically because of its Division 1 status.
"I decided I would rather come to a Division 1 school and play football," Benedict says. "When they said they were going to drop them, my heart sank." He added: "This is the reason I was at the school. So if there's no program, there's no school," Benedict says.
Suggesting that Mount St. Joseph can't survive without Division 1 football may seem like an overstatement. But most of the players and Coach Forte echoed the sentiment.
"If the football program takes a turn south, man, things won't look too healthy for the school, seriously. That's just a known fact," Forte says.
Like many Catholic schools, Mount St. Joseph is experiencing an enrollment crunch, and the state of the economy doesn't help.
A Team With A Mission
Center Chris Reedy, a senior, is a bear-like lineman who still manages to be the first man down the field on punts. Reedy says playing for this team, in this division, is an obligation that goes way beyond the glory of a varsity letter.
"I'm a very religious person, always have been. I was brought up religious, so going to a Catholic school wasn't by choice. I was told I was going to MSJ, and I had no problem with it," Reedy says. "I think if we win games this year — and we're going to win games — it's definitely going to help enrollment. People will see we work hard, we still have pride in our school."
That mission began with the game against the Hilltoppers.
MSJ was down 6-0 at halftime. If only Johnny Bizon could break a big run, or Louis Altobell could pop the ball loose at a key moment, perhaps MSJ could still write the fairytale.
That didn't happen. Instead, MSJ's opponent drove the ball, pouncing on a live fumble on the way to a 25-0 victory.
After the game, Coach Forte addressed his troops. When he talked about what happened on the field, he was impassioned — but not angry. And though they lost, all but one player agreed that they had fun.
"I hate to lose, Coach," Benedict admitted.
It was a moment of honesty for a team that some say is kidding itself. But the MSJ players are going about their business with the utmost sincerity and purpose.