By Dan Mezzalingua
After the fifth consecutive loss by the boys varsity soccer team this past fall season, coach Don Ridall got a shovel and dug a hole at Andrews Field. The hole represented the team’s losing streak. Ridall told his players that they needed to bring Manlius Pebble Hill soccer back to where it needs to be, back to where it used to be.
The team became determined, and the next game beat Tyburn Academy, 4-0. The following morning, defender Nate Barton was chosen due to his leadership in the game, to pick up a chunk of dirt and put it in the hole. The team chanted “Fill the hole!” as their journey to put MPH soccer back on the map began.
The team won four out of their next seven games, qualifying for sectionals for the 39th time in school history in October.
Manlius Pebble Hill is primarily known for having a strong academic program that tends to paint an image that MPH’s athletic program struggles tremendously — which is not always the case. MPH enjoys some athletic success but struggles with wins and losses due to low enrollment, limited facilities and a no-cut policy.
Ridall said that teams in the sports program at MPH have won more than 30 sectional championships and more than 80 league championships in the history of the program.
Traditionally, MPH sports excel in the fall. This past fall, every team qualified for sectionals. The boys soccer team lost in the first round while the girls team advanced to the second round. The girl’s tennis team ranked second in its league, and several players qualified for states individually.
In the spring, the boys golf team is also strong. Last spring, the team was 12-0 and was the Section III small school champion, and two players moved on the state qualifying tournament.
“I think one of the problems is because we’re such a highly regarded academic institution, that’s what people think of first, and that’s fine,” said Don Ridall, who was MPH’s Director of Athletics for 40 years.
One obstacle MPH faces is enrollment, and the numbers show the impact that it has had. In 2000 and 2001, the boys soccer team won consecutive state championships. In 2002, they made it to the final four. Then, in 2003, they lost in the finals. Enrollment was around 600 students then, Ridall said.
MPH’s current enrollment is 311. Enrollment decreased in the last few years due to the financial crisis the school suffered in December 2014. Since then, the school lost 98 students, which impacted the sports program.
“I think everyone can name a few people who were key athletes on their team who left,” said tennis player Hannah Ebner.
As a result of the crisis, girls junior varsity tennis was eliminated and girls lacrosse combined with Onondaga Central School because there weren’t enough players to field a team. Several MPH teams have combined with other schools over the years due to low numbers. Ridall said sports are a lot about numbers and how many students participate.
“I think the more students you have, the better chance you have to have better teams, because it creates a little bit more of a competitive atmosphere,” Ridall said.
MPH’s low enrollment forces the athletic program to have no cuts or tryouts. Yet, even when enrollment is high, the school has kept the no-cut policy because it is unique, according to Ridall.
Some students and coaches agree that this no-cut policy can make MPH athletics less competitive since students can play sports having no experience. However, it can push students out of their comfort zone and provide them a chance to play. It also gives them an opportunity to learn about sports and possibly discover a passion they otherwise would never discover.
Pat Bentley Hoke, girls varsity soccer coach, said she loves having no cuts. Bentley Hoke admires student-athletes’ work ethic while they understand they may not get enough playing time to develop due to lack of JV teams.
“That’s a great learning experience too, to have a challenge that’s maybe a little bit beyond your reach,” Bentley Hoke said.
MPH also struggles with old and limited athletic facilities, including a small gym built in the 1960s, and no track. The current gym can only fit one, sometimes two, sports at a time, making scheduling practices difficult. With the construction of the new gym underway, many students are excited.
“I think it will definitely inspire more focus on sports because I guess it shows MPH is taking a new interest into that besides academics and performing arts,” said Mariah Storie, a junior soccer player.
Coaches and students think the school is underrated for sports. Along with the quiet success MPH has had, student-athletes learn lessons that prepare them for life. Though winning and being more competitive is more fun, the win-loss ratio is easier to accept when players have the opportunity to learn and develop.
Former MPH soccer player Tim Goldman, who graduated in 2011, said he was angry when his parents moved him from Baldwinsville to MPH because Baldwinsville is known for its strong sports programs. However, his time at MPH helped Goldman succeed both on and off the field. He went on to play collegiate soccer and work as an intern for the United States Olympic Committee.
“Winning does not matter at MPH, but learning the fundamentals of sport (teamwork, sportsmanship, respect) can be achieved without winning,” Goldman said in an email.
These qualities were taught once again this past year by Ridall. The boy’s soccer team lost this past fall in the first round of sectionals, but they achieved their goal and filled the hole.
“Even though the numbers claimed that we had a losing season,” said sophomore Grant Lewis, “the filled-in hole said differently. It showed that we were different. We kept our chins up, we pushed each other beyond our limits, and we achieved our goal.”