Pics Courtesy of Braden Carmen
When Section VI first announced on Sept. 9 the decision to move the fall football season to an early spring start set for March 1, focus immediately shifted to the multi-sport athletes across Western New York and the tough decisions they would have to make.
Dunkirk’s Phil Messina is a perfect example of that.
A senior at Dunkirk High School, Messina has been a standout on both the football field as the starting quarterback for the Marauders, and on the baseball diamond as Dunkirk’s catcher. For the past two years, Messina started under center in the fall, then took the winter season off to recover and prepare for the baseball season in the spring.
This year, that wasn’t an option.
Messina received an offer to play college baseball at Cayuga Community College and made his commitment in mid-October. Prior to his commitment, Messina decided to give up football to focus on baseball full-time. Given his passion for baseball and his family background, it’s hard to fault him for the decision. Phil’s older brother, Chris Messina, is a professional strength and conditioning coach in the Red Sox organization with Triple-A Pawtucket.
“I love football and always have, but I have a deep drive within me to continue to play baseball and even hopefully one day get paid for doing so,” said Messina. “I was upset for a while choosing baseball over football because there is nothing like ‘Friday night lights.’ It’s an amazing experience, but I have loved baseball since the day I picked up a bat and ball. I knew from the beginning baseball is what I want to pursue for a long time.”
Juggling two sports at once will be a challenge for any athlete who chooses that route this spring. While football is scheduled to begin earlier than traditional spring sports such as baseball or track & field, there will still be plenty of overlap between the two seasons.
To make matters worse, even if you can manage the schedule, the risk of injury is extremely high. Specifically with a high-risk sport like football, multi-sport athletes could be in a position where even if they are available, they might be playing through an injury and could make things worse.
For a senior who has a chance to play another sport at the next level, it’s easy to see why the possibility of injury could be too much to risk. That was the case for Messina, who suffered a broken collarbone in the football postseason last year. “For me, it was a matter of whether or not I want to risk injury again,” Messina said.
While Messina’s choice may be the right decision, that doesn’t make it any easier on the Dunkirk football team. After Messina stabilized the quarterback position for the last two years, he was poised for his best year of all this fall as a senior with two full years under his belt. Now, the Marauders now have to reset under center.
“Phil is one of my all-time favorite players I’ve had as a coach. In terms of his attitude and work ethic, he’s definitely someone who is going to be missed,” said Dunkirk football coach Mike Sarratori. “… but I don’t blame him at all.”
The Marauders have been here before. After all, they responded quite nicely from the unexpected departures of Tywon Wright and Conrad Thomas a year ago, who transferred to Southwestern before each went on to commit to play college football. Dunkirk was left with a young, inexperienced football team a year ago, but still managed to finish with a record of 6-3 and a Chuck Funke Memorial Bowl title.
“Last year made us coach better and it made us prepare better,” said Sarratori. “I think we’re better for it.”
This spring, the Marauders anticipate running back Christian Ortiz to return for his senior season after an incredible debut in the Marauders program a year ago with over 1,000 yards rushing. They will have an open competition for the vacant starting quarterback position, which may or may not include junior Alex Ahlstrom, who is in a similar position as Messina was with aspirations of playing baseball at the next level. Ahlstrom was Messina’s backup last year and won the Chuck Funke Memorial Bowl title game for Dunkirk as the starter after Messina’s injury.
“Without the pandemic [and everything it’s led to] we should’ve done very well this year. Now with it, we’ll see,” said Sarratori. “In a very weird year, we’re going to do our best. We’re going to go out there on March 1 with whatever team we have.”
Dunkirk can certainly rebound from Messina’s departure from the football team. It’s just a shame that they have to — and the Marauders are certainly not going to be the only team in this position this spring. That’s just what happens when athletes like Messina are put in an impossible position.
“I feel so bad for all the kids put in this position. My heart breaks for them, especially the seniors, who now feel they have to choose for their final year,” said Sarratori.
Follow Braden on Twitter: @bradencarmen