By Dom Nicastro
It’s bittersweet news for any athletics director and her coaches. Participation numbers are up.
That’s great. But it also means cuts at tryouts because rosters have to have a line drawn at some point.
That’s the scenario Terri Pillsbury, sixth-year athletics chief for Saugus High School, and some of her Sachems’ coaches face as they embark on the 2023 fall season. Games will start up in September. Football is up about 33%, and boys golf, boys soccer and girls volleyball are also seeing some great participation numbers. For the latter two, that means cuts.
The fall season has seen some successes on a conference level for the boys and girls soccer teams in recent years. The wins have not been there consistently for other programs, but confidence abounds this season across Sachem fall sports circles.
Football opens up against Chelsea at home Friday, Sept. 8 (6:30 p.m.). Coach Steve Cummings enters Year No. 5 this season, and, thanks to some solid returning players and a schedule in which Pillsbury sees the Sachems being much more competitive on the gridiron, the Sachems are feeling confident.
“We’re bringing in a little bit of new blood with the football staff, where we’ve got three new assistant coaches that we’re excited about,” Pillsbury said. “So, things are looking good there. The energy level has been fantastic at practice. I was there [Aug. 21], watching them for a little bit. And they’ve been doing a nice job because they worked hard over the summer and we’re excited to see where they’re going to be at.”
Pillsbury said she wants nothing more than competitive games for the football team week to week. Its non-league schedule for the first four weeks includes Chelsea to open things up, Northeast the next week in Saugus (Sept. 15), Lynn Tech on the road (Sept. 23) and Swampscott at home (Sept. 29).
“I’m always an AD who wants to have competitively-balanced games,” Pillsbury said. “I’m not looking to sandbag anyone, and I’m not looking to get sandbagged myself. Competitive balance is what we strive to achieve in high school athletics, and we kind of molded our non-league schedule a little differently this year.”
Saugus this fall will see some new head coaches. Volleyball will be led by Mikayla Niles, and Hannah Phelan is now leading the charge for cheerleading.
Barbara Guarente is back to continue her decades-of-service stint as field hockey coach, and another veteran, Chris Coviello, is back as the girls soccer coach. John Sievens leads golf, and Guillermo Sepulveda returns as boys soccer coach.
The golf team at Saugus has seen a slight increase in participation. They have an exciting opportunity to play against Brookline High School at the prestigious Country Club, which recently hosted a US Open.
Volleyball numbers are very healthy, along with soccer, which had more than 60 sign up. “Last year was our first year that we had freshman volleyball, and we look to continue that this year,” Pillsbury said.
Saugus High School has collaborated with other schools, like nearby Northeast Metro Tech in Wakefield, to allow students to participate in sports that might not be feasible for Saugus to host on its own. Cross-country is in that boat this fall, with Saugus sending over about a handful of combined boys and girls to run with the Wakefield school.
While numbers are up, Saugus will have common challenges this fall and for the entire athletic season. Saugus, like many public North Shore high schools, faces challenges in retaining students due to the presence of other schools in the vicinity that offer different programs and opportunities. Schools like St. Mary’s in Lynn, Malden Catholic and Bishop Fenwick in Peabody draw away Saugus student-athletes. And there’s Northeast in Wakefield. There are also budgetary concerns for things like travel that make things challenging as well.
Meanwhile, Saugus is embracing digital advancements, such as live streaming games and digital ticketing, to enhance the experience for fans and reduce cash transactions. “We’ve got live streaming happening with a lot of our games in the stadium,” Pillsbury said. “We’re excited about that.”