Youth league asks township to shed light on field issue

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:52

Sparta - They crowd alongside the library and playground, most in front of the Mohawk Avenue School, others in the back wherever grass can still grow during the last two weeks in August. There are so many of them that parents need a scorecard to tell their kids apart; all the girls with their hair pulled back, the boys masquerading under oversized helmets and shoulder pads. From behind a nearby backstop, Barry Wyatt watched the sun set on another practice. The longtime coach and former association president couldn't see the Sparta Little League Football Association slowing down anytime soon. He hopes the township can shed some light on solutions to finding additional space for practicing. The youth football association has requested permission from the township council to practice during the month of October on two additional lighted fields n one in Station Park and the other at Memorial Field behind the Dairy Queen. Mayor Alish Hambel has said the council will look into the matter. "For the size of the program and the number of kids we've got, it's not enough," said Wyatt, who recalled the days when he used to pass around a helmet and ask for donations to help buy uniforms. Back then, the Sparta Warriors and Mohawk Red Devils were perennial powerhouses in Sussex County youth football circles. That was 30 years ago. The program has since grown to include some 635 local 7-13-year-old boys and girls that make up nine football teams and 19 cheerleading squads. "It's a zoo out there," said Chris McGrath, the association's current president. "We're not doing anything different than we've always done, but the numbers are growing. There's just more people in town and it's a good program." Last year, the township picked up $1,500 of the $2,500 cost to install portable lights for one field at Station Park, where a limited practice schedule was developed for all of the teams to share. This year, the league will have to cover the entire $2,500 expense for lights. McGrath said the township's commitment to softball under the lights at Memorial Field has left the football league with limited access to space during the fall, when nights are longer and practices are shorter. "With the amount of growth that we have experienced, we can no longer be limited to one lighted field," he said. "We would be willing to practice on field 1B at Station Park or Memorial Field at Ungerman." McGrath said the league has submitted requests to the recreation department to practice on these fields the past two years, but permission has not been granted. "As taxpayers, we pay for the lighting of all the fields for all sports in town," said McGrath. "Soccer, softball and baseball have fields that are lit during the spring and fall for their use. Our only season is in the fall and we are asking the township to do the same for football as they do for the other sports." Little League football began play in Sparta back in 1953, a decade before Phil Collins played fullback in the Milk Bowl, when dairy products had more to do with Sparta than a trip to 7-11. "Any program has its ups and downs," said Collins. "But Sparta has had good kids come through the program all along." McGrath said that many of those kids n about 50 this year -- return to coach in the program once they have moved on to high school. "Most of these guys come back when they have their kids," said Wyatt, a silver whistle hanging from his neck across a t-shirt commemorating a past championship team. "They want to give back and we want them to keep coming back to the program." Lou Seville came back while quarterbacking Sparta High School to two state championships in the early ‘80s. He's never left. "It's a nice experience," said Seville, who is again coaching this year. "You learn discipline. You learn how to be a teammate. Football is the ultimate team sport. All of my good friends n all the people I associate with n I met in Sparta."