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Easthampton football program moves up to Intercounty League

Easthampton's Shane Andrews weaves through Pathfinder defenders for a touchdown during Saturday's matchup in Easthampton.
JOSH KUCKENS

Easthampton's Shane Andrews weaves through Pathfinder defenders for a touchdown during Saturday's matchup in Easthampton. JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

The Easthampton football team has been arguably the most successful program in the Tri-County League over the past decade. But thanks to the new football realignment in the Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the program will now embark on a new challenge.

Easthampton is set to begin play in the Intercounty League in 2013, the first time in 13 varsity seasons the Eagles will compete in something other than the Tri-County.

The proposed plan passed by a 29-1 vote Friday by the athletic directors of the PVIAC. The executive board will need to approve the recommendations in a Feb. 14 meeting. Following a 30-day period for any appeals, the final ratification would be set for mid-March.

“Being in a league for 12 years, players obviously change, but the coaches are usually the same,” said Easthampton coach Joe Kocot. “You’re really familiar with what other teams do. It’ll be an adjustment going into the Intercounty, so we’ll have to scout better just to get a sense of what other teams will do. But we’re going up, that’s the deal. We’re just going to go forward with where we are.”

The cooperative program with Hampshire Regional won the Division 3A Super Bowl in 2005, claimed the Division 4 Super Bowl title in 2010 and qualified for the postseason again this past season. This coming season is the first with a statewide playoff system.

“We’ve won Super Bowls in two different ways,” said Kocot. “In 2005 it was our league champion against central Mass. In 2008 the top two teams in the Tri-County played a playoff to go to the Super Bowl against central Mass. Then in 2010 it was the four-team playoff with just western Mass. teams. So this is just another format and we’ll do our best to succeed.”

In a normal realignment period, Pathfinder, Pioneer Regional and Palmer would have been likelier candidates because all three had better overall records than Easthampton over the last four years.

But with the Eagles’ placement in Division 5 for the new state playoffs, a move to the Intercounty seemed unavoidable. With the exception of Greenfield and Turners Falls, seven of the nine squads in the new Intercounty League are in D5.

Within the past five seasons, Easthampton has played Belchertown, Turners Falls, Frontier Regional, Athol and Greenfield as part of its nonleague schedule.

“It’s not like we haven’t ever seen these teams,” said Kocot. “Among our independents last season were Belchertown and Turners, who both had great seasons. So we have some familiarity with many of these new opponents. And we’ve always challenged ourselves with our scheduling. So our attitude is always to play the best teams possible, and with a solid core group coming back next season we’re confident we can compete.”

Kocot initially considered appealing his team’s placement, but he and athletic director Jeff Sealander decided to move forward.

“I think the fact that we’re a coop tilted it toward us being moved, but our coop is different than most,” Kocot said. “Neither school would be able to have football without the other. And another factor is that Easthampton and Hampshire are rivals in other sports, so it takes a while for our guys to mesh into a team. It’s a strange dynamic, so I have to give our kids credit for making it work.”

Northampton is the only other local program to switch leagues, moving from the AA Conference to the Suburban. It facilitated the move by dropping its cooperative with Smith Vocational, which will begin its own varsity team with Smith Academy and play in the Tri-County in 2013.

Amherst Regional (Suburban), South Hadley (Suburban), Belchertown (Intercounty) and Frontier Regional (Intercounty) all stayed put. Belchertown recently won an appeal to be placed in Division 5 after initially being put in Division 4.

Other major changes include two new coops with Putnam and Sci-Tech joining programs, while Commerce will now include Renaissance. Each program is set to move up one league — Putnam to the AA, Commerce to the Suburban. Agawam moves down to the Suburban with West Springfield going up to the AA. Ludlow joins Easthampton in the Intercounty, while Mohawk Regional drops to the Tri-County.

Kocot, who planned on retiring at the end of the 2012 season, changed his mind when the state playoff was approved. He feels his program is ready for the next chapter in its history.

“Once they voted in the state playoff, I decided to come back and see what we can do in this new system,” said Kocot. “We’re all eager for the challenge. We’ll have to change how we operate in some respects and everyone’s level will need to improve, but I know I’m looking forward to it.”

Michael Wilkinson can be reached at mwilkinson@gazettenet.com.

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