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Celebrating 75 Years of NEPSAC

11/13/17
By BOB YORK

The times were ominous back in the spring of 1942. The United States was involved in World War II on two fronts: To the left was Japan, to the right were Germany and Italy. The trickle-down effect of what amounted to a world-wide war, meanwhile, was causing much consternation, not to mention some serious belt tightening back on the home front.

Among the millions who were deeply concerned over the impending restrictions Americans would be facing was Herbert Stokinger, an athletic director at Milton Academy. According to a piece penned by Macdonald Murphy, Stokinger was worried after reading a newspaper article that reported bus companies could no longer charter buses for athletic trips without surrendering any rights to replacement tires for buses so chartered. In Stokinger’s opinion, that posed a direct threat to athletic competition.

What’s more, Stokinger began questioning if interscholastic athletics could continue … how athletic programs might be modified … how best to meet the inevitable shortages of equipment they would be facing. He wanted answers … he needed answers.

So, following conversations with fellow ADs Martin Souders of Exeter Academy, Eliot Putnam of the Noble & Greenough School and J. Leo Foley of Roxbury Latin, Stokinger summoned all private school athletic directors “within a reasonable distance” of Boston to a meeting. On April 11, 1942, representatives from 23 independent schools met at the Harvard Club to discuss how they might deal with the severe government regulations due to the war effort. Five other schools also expressed their interest in the effort, but were unable to attend the meeting.

Souders, meanwhile, used the gathering that day as a platform to state what he felt was a real need for “a permanent organization among independent schools that would meet periodically for discussions, legislation and for the exchange of ideas and problem solving.” Sounders’ plan was unanimously approved and he was elected president. All that now remained on the agenda was giving this organization a name. Its founding fathers would call it the New England Prep School Athletic Council.

Soon after Souders was elected president, he wrote to the council members to reiterate the fact that “NEPSAC is primarily for the purpose of exchanging ideas on problems common to all our private schools.” He then likely dropped those 28 letters in the nearest mail box – but not before placing stamps on each of the envelopes. The cost of a stamp in those days: three cents each.

Today, as NEPSAC celebrates its 75th anniversary, Souders and his associates would be staring at a whole different landscape of prep school sports. For starters, there’s no longer a need for stamps to help converse with counterparts. Today, there’s something called email and texting that would allow Souders instant accessibility to his associates. Souders would also quickly discover that his number of communications would have risen dramatically. That’s because as NEPSAC celebrates its Diamond Anniversary this year, its roster now boasts of 167 schools, plus 17 associate members.

As for the advent of girls sports within the NEPSAC ranks, “we were way ahead of the curve as far as girls athletics were concerned … we were up and running way before Title IX came into play and forced the creation of girls sports at public schools,” remembers Kate Turner, who has held the title of associate athletic director at Brewster Academy for the past 30 years. “I know … I was there … I graduated from Beaver Country Day back in 1964 and attended Milton Academy prior to that and I played field hockey and lacrosse at both schools.”

Turner remembers that having a background that included participation in athletics on the prep school level in the mid 60s, followed by four years of competition at Centenary College in the latter 60s, quickly paid dividends for her.

“My first teaching job was at Kingswood Regional High School, which was just down the road from Brewster Academy in Wolfboro, N.H.,” said Turner. “I had hardly gotten settled in when they asked me if I could help out with the middle school’s field hockey program. I jumped at the opportunity.

“Back then,” reflected Turner, “very few women had had the opportunity to have played competitive sports in high school and in college and so, with the experience I had received as a player, I felt completely comfortable helping out with the field hockey program and if I hadn’t truly appreciated the opportunity of attending NEPSAC schools prior to that, I certainly did from that day on.”

“If Souders and the rest of the founding fathers were here today, “I think they would be completely astounded by what has transpired over the past couple of decades in NEPSAC,” said Rick DelPrete, one of the longest tenured members in the council’s annals. DelPrete, who served as NEPSAC president in 1989, took over as athletic director at Berwick Academy in 1965, before moving on to the Hotchkiss School in 1970 for a 34-year run as AD. He retired in 2004, but remained a member of NEPSAC’s executive board until this year, giving him 52 years of service.

“I think they would be both amazed and proud that so many independent schools have joined NEPSAC throughout the years,” added DelPrete, of an organization that more than doubled in size – from 28 to 60 members – in just its first five years and has more than tripled its enrollment since then.

“There’s an I in independent (schools) and it’s a capital I,” quipped DelPrete, “and back in the days before NEPSAC, everyone was doing their own thing … everyone went their own way … made up their own schedules … probably made up their own rules, too.”

In DelPrete’s opinion, the rapid rise in enrollment during NEPSAC’s first five years of existence was due to the fact that these schools saw the council’s arrival as a calming force and its advent would bring some stability, competition, sportsmanship and most importantly, fair play to their athletic programs. It would also eventually chalk up another alluring feature that would cause its ranks to grow even more.

“Back in those days, there weren’t many leagues,” said DelPrete. “Everyone was pretty much making up their own independent schedules and in the end, all these teams began realizing that with everyone playing independently, the games really didn’t mean much. They began realizing that once their regular seasons ended, there was nothing left to play for.”

So, as NEPSAC’s enrollment grew and independent schedules waned, league championships slowly but surely became a reality for independent school teams. Soon, however, even the aspirations of capturing league titles would begin to lose their sheen. Before long, teams were entertaining even bigger dreams – playing for New England championships.

As DelPrete saw it, this was the perfect scenario to put NEPSAC at the forefront of New England prep school athletics, and after all these years, the vast majority would have to concur that the council remains the beacon for competition, sportsmanship and fair play that Souders and his cohorts had truly hoped it would.

“Bringing New England championships into play finally gave NEPSAC some clout,” said DelPrete. “The council sort of used those championships as the proverbial carrot, getting its point across that if you want the council to sponsor New England championships, then here’s what we want you to do to make sure you’re eligible to participate in postseason play. Then they proceeded to list what they wanted the schools to do in order to comply with their wishes.”

One of NEPSAC’s first mandates was having varsity level coaches attend its meetings in an effort to form a tighter and stronger bond between the council and its member schools. As agendas broadened, the council opted to bring in speakers considered to be authorities in their specific sport, who would conduct discussions with the prep school coaches as well.

These meetings didn’t draw to a close for the athletic directors once the coaches and speakers had headed back to their respective campuses, however. Nor did they conclude when the NEPSAC president had leveled the closing gavel. For many of the ADs, they found after-hour gatherings to be as productive as the meetings themselves – maybe even more so.

“We’d often break up into small groups following the meetings and head off somewhere to exchange ideas and believe me,” said DelPrete, “these little give-and-take sessions proved to be very advantageous for all of us.

“Being a member of NEPSAC proved to be very helpful as it enabled you to see the whole picture of New England prep school sports, not just what your own teams were up to, and that was a good thing,” added DelPrete. “As for the give-and-take sessions, they were very useful for all of us. We all quickly realized that at one time or another we all faced … or would face … the same problems as the guy sitting across from you at the table. It was comforting to hear the remedies that these guys, who had already run into those problems, came up with and it was just as heartening for me whenever I was able to help come up with a solution for someone else.”

As the various fall, winter and spring seasons would come and go, NEPSAC found itself slowly but surely sponsoring more and more championships in various sports. So, the council assigned Rick Francis, the athletic director at Williston Northampton at that time, to oversee postseason play.

“These various New England prep school tournaments didn’t spring up overnight,” said Francis, a long-time NEPSAC member who served as the council’s president in 1986. “They evolved, I would say, over a period of 30 or 40 years into what you see today. In fact, the first postseason tournament I can ever remember was a basketball tournament. I think it was run by the Belmont Hill coach back in the 50s.”

The minute those “New England Champion” banners began dangling from the rafters of prep school gymnasiums throughout the Northeast, everyone started looking for a piece of the action – and the lure to win one hasn’t stopped yet. In fact, if anything, it has only increased. Francis knows first hand how much the workload to run these tournaments has increased over the years. When he retired, NEPSAC opted to replace him with two people: Jim McNally of Rivers took over the boys tournaments, while Kathy Noble (then AD at Proctor and Lawrence Academy), was placed in charge of the girls tournaments.

Due to NEPSAC’s quest for fair play – particularly in boys basketball – it found itself struggling off and on throughout the years with some sport’s classifications. One of the challenges, according to Mark Conroy, the athletic director at the Williston Northampton School, was that smaller schools were putting in an inordinate amount of resources into their basketball programs and fielding teams that were displacing larger schools who were maintaining programs consistent with all their programs on campus.

“After much consideration that included numerous meetings, and an inclusive process, a new classification model was adopted that gave all NEPSAC boys basketball schools a choice to compete in a class with like-minded schools that
shared a similar approach to boys’ basketball” said Conroy, who has been a member of the NEPSAC Executive Board for the past 14 years and served as president from 2008 to 2010. “Schools could choose to compete at the AAA or AA levels with schools that make a similar commitment to field teams at that level or to compete in the Enrollment Division with four separate classes (A, B, C, D). NEPSAC boys basketball has continued to thrive providing opportunities for aspiring college players to compete in arguably the most competitive secondary school basketball league in the country,” added Conroy.

For the smaller schools that opted to move up into a more competitive tournament bracket, they discovered that the council was taking their quantum leaps quite seriously and that such schools had best not consider such a shift without giving it some serious thought – because there could be consequences.

“The council put a lot of thought into placing schools in leagues, conferences and divisions that aligned them with similar teams,” said Ned Gallagher, the long-time athletic director at Choate Rosemary Hall and NEPSAC president from 2002 to 2004. “So, we felt as though the teams that voted to move up in the tournament could not do so for just one year and then drop back to their original bracket the next year. We felt that was unfair to the competition. In order to minimize teams’ movements and make sure they took such a move seriously, the council said, these team would have to compete at that same level for a three-year span before they could return to their original bracket.”

Boys’ basketball isn’t the only NEPSAC program that has had to undergo classification changes, however. Down at the other end of the field house is boys’ hockey, which is another high-caliber New England prep school sport that is looked upon by many to be one of the premier leagues in the entire country and considered to be an outstanding stepping-stone to the collegiate ranks – and possibly beyond.

In this scenario, according to Conroy, rather than playing in two divisions, boys’ hockey teams went to one division – where all competing schools were in the same division – Division I. “This was precipitated by a slow and steady exodus from Division II to Division I, to the point that there was a significant imbalance in the two divisions,” explained Conroy.
“A school’s move up to Division I was related to admissions,” added Conroy. “The schools felt that playing Division 1 hockey would give them the best opportunity to impact enrollment. A decision was then made to create one division and three separate postseason tournaments. A secondary consideration to this alignment was the interest in providing more postseason opportunities for schools. This new model created three eight-team postseason tournaments rather than two.”

Giving further credence to NEPSAC’s continuing effort to seek fair play to all its teams, whether their destination is determined by talent or enrollment, during the 2015-16 athletic season, counting the six boys basketball trophies and three boys hockey plaques, NEPSAC officials handed out a total of 82 New England championship trophies in 27 sports. A look at the final tally finds the boys picking up 42 pennants in 13 sports, including seven football bowl championships. The girls, meanwhile, earned 40 trophies over 14 sports.

If there was ever was an individual who had a front-row seat to chronicle NEPSAC’s history of girls athletics, it would have to be Kathy Noble, currently the dean of students at Williston Northampton School. Noble, who has occupied the dean’s office at Williston for the past seven years, spent her first three decades occupying the athletic director’s chair at five different NEPSAC schools.

Noble, who served as NEPSAC’s president from 1999 to 2000, entered the prep school scene in 1980, with a 14-year stint at Loomis Chaffee as Assistant AD. She then went to become the AD at The Rivers School for two years, Miss Porter’s for eight, Proctor Academy for five and Lawrence academy for two – then she was off to Williston.

“If my memory serves me right, many of the larger prep schools throughout New England began going coed during the late 60s and early 70s,” said Noble. “Then, in 1982, a number of area athletic directors in our district got together to establish the Western New England Prep School leagues for girls in soccer, field hockey, basketball and lacrosse … which mirrored the area leagues that had been set up for the boys, as well as what the ISL (Independent School League) was doing in eastern Massachusetts.”

Back in the early 1980s, however, the thought of postseason play, according to Noble, was not looked upon highly by a good number of NEPSAC headmasters.

“Many headmasters back in those days weren’t big fans of their boys and girls athletic teams competing in postseason tournaments,” said Noble, “and I remember it well, because I was one of the NEPSAC officials who was trying to promote postseason play."

“Those who were opposed to tournaments, felt as though regular-season play was enough and they were worried extended athletic seasons would interfere with classroom and exam time,” added Noble. “All of us who were in favor of postseason play and knew that if it ever made an appearance, it would never go away. Well, it did, and it hasn’t.”

Noble says it’s been exciting to watch the evolution of girls’ athletics in NEPSAC. She has been greatly heartened by the “dramatic improvements” in girls’ athletic facilities. Long gone are the days that girls “used separate but inferior facilities.” Today, the athletic arenas that they compete in are what Noble describes as “fantastic.”

“I’ve also been very impressed by those men and women who are coaching female teams throughout the NEPSAC ranks,” said Noble. “They’ve not only proven to be outstanding mentors, but they’ve turned out to be strong advocates for girls athletics as well and that’s very important. I think the vast majority of these coaches have continually stressed that their athletes compete in multiple sports rather than lose that opportunity by choosing to specialize in one … like we find many of the boys doing these days. To be honest, though, I truly feel as though there’s much less pressure on girls to specialize than there is on the boys.”

Specialization, as it turns out, has probably been the most challenging aspect prep school athletics has had to deal with over the past decade or so.

“Prep school athletics continue to espouse, from both a practical and philosophical stance, the multi-sport experience believing that for the majority of adolescents this is most healthy,” said Conroy. “This stance has been challenged by a world in which there has been a move towards specialization … the concentration on one sport year round."

“Many applicants to preps today are less interested in the multi-sport experience and thus schools have had to adjust impacting participation policies while also initiating strength training and hiring strength coaches,” added Conroy. “NEPSAC has had to provide additional oversight and guidance to out-of-season coaching on our campuses, knowing that many students are looking for opportunities to develop in their primary sports."

“Specialization has also impacted the size and scale of prep school athletic programs,” continued Conroy. “With fewer three-sport athletes, schools are looking at a reduction in the number of teams in certain sports and even whether they can field certain sports. A prime example is football, a sport that relies on numbers and cross-over athletes,” said Conroy. “Over the past six to eight years, a handful of schools, including Northfield Mount Hermon School, Vermont Academy and Kimball Union Academy, have dropped football.“ According to Conroy, however, help may be on the way for the rank and file of prep school football – well, sort of, anyway. Following its recent departures, Conroy pointed out a movement underway to establish an eight-man football league, which, so far, currently includes The Gunnery, Pomfret, Millbrook and Forman.

As it states in the council’s rulebook: “NEPSAC is committed to the philosophy of encouraging student athletes to play multiple sports” and so it devised an Out-Of-Season Coaching Policy to support this promise.

According to its policy on specialization, “NEPSAC prohibits institutional support for out of season coaching of a school’s student-athletes by a school’s coaches. Schools shall not provide release time, credit or uniforms out of season to their student-athletes. Coaches shall not coach varsity athletes on non-school teams during the school year. Coaches are prohibited from coaching student-athletes outside of their sport’s assigned season unless otherwise specified.”

“These are challenging times in prep school athletics,” said Jamie Arsenault, the outgoing NEPSAC president who has been New Hampton School’s athletic director for the past 18 years. In addition to dealing with specialization in athletics, he helped script a NEPSAC transgender policy and continues to ensure that all students receive the same athletic benefits.

Despite the fact that after having served nearly two-decades on the council, Arsenault said “I simply can’t imagine what Martin Souders … our first president … would say if he could see his New England Prep School Athletic Council 75 years later. I hope he’d say he liked what we’re doing and the way we’ve been doing it … and I think he might. After all, it may be 75 years later, but we’re still striving for the same goals … we want what’s right and what’s fair for every one of our student athletes.

“I feel blessed to have been a part of NEPSAC for nearly 20 years now,” added Arsenault, who will be relinquishing his presidency this month. “When I first came to New Hampton, like most prep school ADs, I was wearing four hats … as an athletic director … as a coach … as a teacher … as a dorm parent, you become so immersed in your own school, you begin to lose track of what’s going on around you … what’s going on at other schools. Once I joined NEPSAC my focus began to change, however. I began paying attention to what was going on at other schools as well. I began paying attention to how the veteran athletic directors were doing things and I learned a lot from them. Now, as my presidency draws to a close, I have to say I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

“We’ve had a couple of real good years under Jamie,” said Bob Howe, who has served as vice president under Arsenault, “and I’m hopeful there will be (many) more good years ahead of us,” added NEPSAC’s incoming president. "The Board will continue to work together answering all the policy and program questions we get from schools and coaches' associations. There will always be work to do!"

“One of our primary points of focus will be to continue working and communicating with the coaches associations as well as the athletic directors to insure we have continued uniformity for preseason, regular season and postseason play as well as to try and stay ahead of any potential problems that may arise along the way,” added Howe, who is in his second year as Deerfield Academy’s athletic director. Prior to taking over Big Green athletics, Howe, a long-time NEPSAC member, held the same position at Loomis Chaffee School for 12 years.

“There’s been a real growth in our ability to oversee all aspects of New England prep school athletics,” continued Howe, “and I’m hoping we can maintain that capability … if not improve on it in the years to come to insure continued fair play. After all, our goal here at NEPSAC is to do right by the schools.”

The NEPSAC SPECIAL NEWS is sponsored by Scoreboard Enterprises. Scoreboard Enterprises is a Sports Technology Company and exclusive Daktronics dealer in the New England area. We provide, install and service scoreboards, video displays and audio systems designed specifically for athletic facilities. Contact us for more information at www.scoreboardenterprises.com; 274 Fruit Street Mansfield, MA 02048, 508-339-8113.