Niagara Falls set to host Wheatfield in first night football game at new complex

In this May 6, 2015 file photo, then-Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Bianco expresses her appreciation for all the hard work put into building the new Niagara Falls High School Athletic Complex during its opening ceremony.

Niagara Falls High School is attempting to inject some school spirit into the community.

For what is believed to be the first time since the Wolverines began playing at the Niagara Falls Athletic Complex behind the school, the football team will host a Friday game under the lights at 7 tonight against Niagara Wheatfield. Niagara Falls has the electrical capacity to install lights, but funding has yet to be available, so the school is using rented light standards for the game. The boys and girls soccer teams also hosted Cardinal O’Hara on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, under the lights.

The school hopes to make this an annual homecoming experience, along with potentially adding night games for baseball, softball and lacrosse in the spring, but for now it is a way to provide students a taste of normalcy after most of their typical high school experiences were washed away with the COVID-19 pandemic for the last 18 months.

“Our kids have lost so many great opportunities because of the pandemic,” Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie said. “... It’s just an effort in the spirit of Friday nights lights to try and give our kids just a little something more, especially coming off of COVID and to be able to play against one of our close rivals makes it even more fun. It’s tied into the pep rally and the homecoming dance the next day. It’s an early attempt to try to have fun and give kids a sense of what high school should be about.”

Niagara Falls also hopes to use the occasion to coax more students into participating in athletics if they can see it is treated in a special manner. The Wolverine varsity football team has 43 players on the roster this season, up from 36 in the spring but well below the 66 on the squad during the 2018 season.

The lights and a visit from nearby rival Niagara Wheatfield is expected to draw a big crowd, increasing what is hoped to be a special atmosphere.

“It’s a way to encourage kids to get involved in things beyond the classroom, which we know is the key to a successful recovery, to successful mental health and to success in school,” Laurrie said. “Hopefully we can start to pick up our numbers and participation again. Quite frankly, our participation in athletics has gone down significantly. A lot of that is because kids are working ... to take care of their families and not putting focus into athletics. You only have a small window to play high school athletics, and unfortunately, some of our students have to subjugate that window.”

Big crowds can also have a tendency to create more cause for concern. Niagara Falls has endured a violent summer, with dozens of shootings citywide. Twenty-one students were suspended on the second day of the new school term following four separate brawls among female students. The end of the first week was also muddled by a false report of a gun on campus.

In response to such concerns, there will be a strong presence at the game from the Niagara Falls Police Department, as well as the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department and school security. Niagara Falls is also relying upon community peace groups such as Niagara Falls Peacemakers, Niagara Falls Men Standing Strong and local members of the NAACP to help keep order if needed. Since the fights broke out, each of those groups have helped at the school during dismissal. Elementary and middle school students will need to arrive with a parent or guardian to be admitted.

“I put a lot of faith in those citizen groups and they have shown up en masse and have been instrumental in helping us with dismissal,” Laurrie said. “To think that we’re going to (just) rely on the police isn’t fair to the police. To rely on those community members and others has really been a godsend for us. It’s really great since they’ve been out there.”

Nick Sabato can reached via email at nick.sabato@gnnewspaper.com or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.

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