Written by Josh Thomson (Journal News & Lohud.com)
SPARKILL - Dressed in a maroon-and-white Adidas quarter-zip and armed with a helmet of the same colors, Matt Barry set out this winter offering opportunity and hope.
Barry has made his pitch at schools in Rockland, Westchester and Bergen counties, but also strayed further down the East Coast. At every stop, he's been sure to flash the program's new swag while selling prospective players on what else St. Thomas Aquinas can offer.
That includes a chance for average-sized football players to compete in over-sized venues like Army's Michie Stadium.
"I just love the concept," Barry said.
With the longtime Rockland County police officer and coach at the helm, STAC is in the process of building a sprint football program. The team will begin competition in 2018 and already has seven games scheduled.
Barry and his staff have built a database of over 800 athletes, welcomed 300 of them on visits and had 67 players apply for enrollment.
"The numbers keep growing every day," said Barry, who expects to build a 65-man roster.
STAC's new team will compete under the same rules and standards of traditional NCAA football teams with one notable exception: Sprint football players must weigh 178 pounds or less.
In one regard, the restriction limits who the programs can recruit, yet it also creates opportunities for the undersized athletes often underrecruited or overmatched at the college level. Although the sport has been around since 1934, Barry has been peppered with questions.
"What is it? Is it 8-on-8? Is it flag?" he said. "It is regular football."
Albertus Magnus senior Michael Kehoe has committed to join the team specifically because it will allow him to compete on a level playing field. In fact, players must make weight every Tuesday and Thursday to play on the weekends.
"I knew my mom wouldn't want me playing with these huge guys," said the 175-pound Kehoe, who played for Barry at Albertus Magnus. "It's a good opportunity for kids like me who want to play in college."
According to athletic director Gerry Oswald, STAC first considered creating a program four or five years ago. That discussion resumed last year and the college announced last fall that it would join the Collegiate Sprint Football League as its 10th member.
The Spartans will compete in the North division with Army, Franklin Pierce, Post (Conn.) and Cornell and will play each of those teams once. STAC is also scheduled for crossover games against Caldwell, Chestnut Hill and Mansfield — three schools that compete in the South division with Penn and Navy.
The combination of competing against Division I and II schools while staying close to home has been a boon for local recruiting.
"I always wanted to stay local because I love Rockland," said Clarkstown North senior Joey O'Hara, an all-county and all-section running back who has committed to join STAC's team. "That was a big part of it. I have a lot of friends at STAC and I just found it to be a good opportunity. It's the best way I could be happy and still play football."
Although Barry's recruiting has leaned heavily on local schools, he's been contacted by athletes from over 1,000 miles away, too.
"Once the word has gotten out there, we're getting contacted by schools as far away as Florida," he said. "The kids maybe are a little small, like a quarterback who is 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, and they may not get a lot of looks because of it. But it's really been overwhelming how many kids have contacted us wanted to stay involved in college football."
"That's where my 32 years of being a police officer will come into play," he joked.
Barry, who graduated from Clarkstown South, has coached over 25 years at South, Clarkstown North, and most recently, Albertus Magnus. His new role has been different — and not only because he's building a roster. He's also been responsible for picking helmets and uniforms, ordering equipment and clothing and finding students who pass the NCAA clearinghouse. (STAC football players are subject to Division II requirements.)
The new Spartans will begin an in-house weight training program Monday and host five spring practices beginning in late March. Unlike Division I programs, the NCAA won't let the sprint teams begin in-season practice until school starts.
The school has already begun construction on a 65-yard practice field it hopes to complete by April and will build a weight room nearby strictly for the program.
"The college is totally committed to the program," Oswald said.
STAC is scheduled to begin play Sept. 15 at its home field, Torne Valley Field in Hillburn. Oswald said the college will announce the full schedule Feb. 5 and Barry expects to name a list of recruits soon.
Kehoe said the new program has created buzz at his high school and even among former classmates and older friends.
"A lot of Albertus kids I know and a few Clarkstown kids I know are coming. I also know older kids who are transferring to STAC," Kehoe said. "They are excited to play.'