ANSONIA — Sports-side supporters of merging Ansonia and Derby school districts prefer to look on the bright side.
After all, the combined teams could be amazing.
The two districts have been struggling for years with costs and enrollments. A committee to look at combining schools and services has recommended they merge, a decision that would have to be approved by voters in both cities. Regionalization could mean about $10 million in savings by 2024-25, the committee reported.
But it also would spell an end to the 117-year crosstown football rivalry in an area where competitive sports has long been king.
“Of all factors, the sports rivalry between Ansonia and Derby may pose one of the greatest obstacles to regionalization,” a consultant’s report states. “According to one focus group member, a prior regionalization effort years ago was quashed because of the football team. Some students … initially dismissed the idea of regionalization because they couldn’t contemplate their community allowing a merged team. Other focus group members said there will always be some ‘die-hard’ Ansonia and Derby residents who will never favor regionalization.”
From 1830 to 1888, a section of downtown Derby and a section of Ansonia were known as Birmingham. But that was more than 130 years ago, and the Ansonia Chargers and Derby’s Red Raiders have been at odds for generations.
It wasn’t that long ago that that rivalry would pack Ansonia’s Nolan Field and Derby’s Ryan Complex with standing-room-only crowds of 7,000 or more while nearby streets would be narrowed even more by cars parked on both sides.
That doesn’t hold in 2019.
It’s been 18 years since Derby last beat the Chargers in football — a 14-12 nail-bitter in 2001. The past five games — the schools generally play each other once a year — have been Ansonia blow-outs: 48-0, 60-8, 56-8, 38-0 and 42-6.
Ansonia has won 20 state championships to Derby’s three.
Ansonia Mayor David Cassetti claims, “The rivalry has been dead since the 1990s.”
“Our numbers are down … all around, in every sport we have,” said George French, Derby High’s head football coach. “Our numbers are down and we can use a little help.”
During the annual Thanksgiving Day game with Shelton, there were barely enough players on Derby’s sideline to fill separate 11-man offensive and defensive units. As of Wednesday, only 322 students were enrolled at Derby High.
Tom Abel and Nathaniel Bartone are two Derby seniors and football players who said they believe that combining the schools would work well, at least on the playing field.
“We barely have any kids (for football), so I think it’d be the simplest thing just to combine,” Abel said. “Either that or we won’t have a program because we don’t get that many kids.”
In Ansonia, Tom Brockett, the high school football coach and athletic director, said he gets about 45 boys playing football which enables him to field a sub-varsity team. A sub-varsity program allows players to gain experience and build confidence.
Today, Brockett said, Ansonia has a baseball and girls softball varsity and sub-varsity team of 16 to 22 participants, separate boys’ and girls’ varsity and sub-varsity basketball teams with about 15 to 20 participants, boys’ and girls’ soccer team with about 16 participants, a girls’ varsity and sub-varsity volleyball team with about 25 participants, a girls’ varsity tennis team with 18 participants and a cheer team with about 25 participants.
On the other hand, “There are no freshmen level athletic programs at Derby,” said Matt Bradshaw, its athletic director. “Boys and girls basketball are able to play full junior varsity schedules but could still benefit by the greater number of athletes (with a combined Derby/Ansonia team).
“Football, soccer, baseball and softball could benefit by growing their junior varsity numbers. They have all had to limit some of their junior varsity games due to low numbers,” Bradshaw said.
Derby, on the other hand, still fields track, cross-country and wrestling teams, sports that Ansonia once had but no longer offer.
“Ansonia students would have access to teams that are offered in Derby,” said Jim Gildea, Derby’s Board of Education chairman and a co-chair on the Regionalization Study committee. “Students in Derby conversely would benefit from programs offered in Ansonia such as girls’ tennis and girls’ volleyball.
“So while it has been mentioned by some that the elimination of rivalries may be an issue, I ultimately think that is a short-term setback,” he said. “In the big picture, our sports program would benefit and be replaced with more programs for more students.”
Cassetti said he thinks regionalization may offer more for the area’s athletes.
“Combine Ansonia and Derby — you’ll have a powerhouse,” he said. “The (Naugatuck Valley League) better watch out.”
Derby also offers a brand new $25 million sports complex with a turf football field that doubles for soccer, with new baseball and softball fields, a new outdoor track and field complex and a state-of-the art field house.
“We have this brand new facility and if the (football) team is small, it’s almost a waste of money,” said Bartone.
But some Derby parents have told committee members they believe the competition for team spots might be so fierce that their kids could be shut out.
According to the consultant’s report, one student at a focus group said, “I might not get enough playing time” in a regional district. An adult member of the focus group said, “I hope (regionalization) is after my son leaves, because he’s never going to make a sports team if we regionalize.”
Ken Marcucio Sr., who has spent his life as a Derby teacher, coach, athletic director and now Board of Education member, doesn’t agree. He said he believes players are not getting the experience they need in his district because there are no freshman teams.
George Kurtyka, a longtime Derby Board of Education member, said a merger could work out to his district’s advantage: “With additional students involved in sports, we might possibly have a lacrosse or field hockey team.”
With better teams comes better school spirit, Derby Mayor Richard Dziekan said.
“It’s like the pros or colleges,” he said. “When teams are good, students get excited and more people come to watch.”
Jim Benanto, who played on some of Derby’s powerhouse teams in the early 1960s, said he believes tradition is important but also sees some of that history being replaced because newcomers don’t hold the same things dear.
“So the people who have been in town (for decades)… say we can’t do this. We have to have our own team,” he said. “We have the new people that moved into town that don’t go back that far. (To them) it’s just another game. It wouldn’t matter (to them) if we don’t play Ansonia or Shelton anymore.”
The consultant’s report also speaks of tradition.
“It may be the case that athletic pride and the rivalry really represent something bigger: an identity, and how regionalization could mean a loss of that identity,” the report states. “Indeed, many community members spoke about how important it is to ‘preserve and honor these traditions, since our communities are built on these.’”
The report said some groups, however, felt that the sports rivalries should not determine whether the districts merge if the outcomes for the students worked better with a melded school community.
“If (regionalization) is better for kids, then I’m in favor of it,” one participant is quoted as saying.
“we’d have to be respectful of the cultures in both cities,” said Joe Jaumann, an Ansonia Fifth Ward alderman who co-chairs the Ansonia-Derby School Regionalization Temporary Study Committee with Gildea.
“If regionalization is approved, maybe we go back in time and call the new school Birmingham,” he said. “But whatever happens, we’d want to get as much input from the residents that we could.”