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Red & Black rift leads to departure of players, coaches

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A tumultuous 2012 season for the Watertown Red and Black has carried over into the offseason and will have an impact on 2013 and beyond.

Three coaches and several players have left the nation’s oldest semipro football team and have agreed to play for its Empire Football League rival, the Syracuse Shock.

The movement started with former offensive coordinator/assistant head coach, Ammbrose Souza, who left the team mid-season due to philosophical differences with head coach George Ashcraft.

Souza agreed to join Syracuse in early December. He was soon followed by last year’s defensive coordinator Jeremy Chaney, special teams coach Christian Hughes and offensive/defensive line coach Aaron Brown.

Players confirmed by Souza to have joined the Shock are: quarterback Brian Williams, defensive tackle and 2012 EFL Defensive Most Valuable Player Alex Tibbles, Mike Homewood, Rob Hughes, Dillon Chirico and Jarrun Hilaire. Souza said he is still talking to several other players, and there could be up to 16 from last year’s team that would join Syracuse.

The Shock’s head coach is Kenny Anderson, another former Red and Black player and coach.

To Ashcraft, the exodus is just something that comes with the territory.

“I’ve had coaches come and go before, I’ve had players come and go. It’s semipro football. Nothing will ever change that. You only get people sometimes for one year, sometimes they hang around 10 years,” said Ashcraft, entering his 23rd year as the team’s head coach.

“People can do what they want to do and people come and people go. That’s the way it is,” Ashcraft added.

The 2013 EFL schedule was released on Sunday. The Shock will host the Red and Black on July 13, and the teams will meet at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds on Sept. 7.

The story of the coach and player exodus began at the end of the 2011 season.

At that time, Souza said he and Ashcraft came to an agreement that Souza would take on the title of assistant head coach and be in charge of on-the-field activities while Ashcraft shifted his focus to other managerial tasks.

Initially, according to Souza, the transition went smoothly.

The staff began holding official coaches interviews, something the organization hadn’t done before. Souza said he started working on recruiting, had players working out with him two mornings a week, and the coaches held meetings more frequently than ever before.

Players were held accountable to attend practices if they wanted to play in games.

Souza said the new regime also wanted to put a stronger emphasis on community service, adding to the team’s usual community participation in annual events like the Heart Walk, Relay for Life and various parades. Souza said he had arranged for players, and Hughes, a Purple Heart veteran, to talk to groups of kids at the YMCA.

“In that spring to start the (2012) season, we did more things of that nature than we’ve ever done, and that’s really what we wanted to be,” said Souza, who had been an assistant coach with the Red and Black since 2009 and a player prior to that. “We didn’t want to be just a football team. The idea was that we would really be a second-chance organization for young men to have a positive influence in the community. And they get to play football, it gives them an opportunity, it gives them an outlet.”

“(Ashcraft) loved the idea. I think the proof was in the pudding; we had more guys dressed for the first five games of the season than we ever have before. We ran out of jerseys. That’s never happened before,” Souza added. “It wasn’t because we’re playing football and we’re doing halfway decent, it was because they bought into something and there was some ownership there, and it was a worthwhile cause.”

The new system continued to work until the week leading up to the Red and Black’s fourth game of the season, against Vermont, on Aug. 4 at the Watertown Fairgrounds.

In the week leading up to the game, Souza said Ashcraft told him he had been contacted by a former player that wanted to come back and play in that Saturday’s game, despite not having been to a practice all year.

Souza said the two disagreed over whether the player, whom Souza identified as Mike Dumaw, would play that week. Ashcraft was worried that Dumaw would play for another team, Souza said, so the two eventually came to a compromise that Dumaw would suit up for the Vermont game, attend a practice the following week and then be able to play in the team’s next game, which was the EFL cutoff date for player participation if they are to be eligible for the playoffs.

But on the day of the Vermont game, Souza said, things changed.

Souza said that Ashcraft was “on edge all day,” and that players were concerned seeing someone there, suiting up, that had yet to attend a practice.

According to Souza, while he was assuring the players that Dumaw was only there to suit up, Ashcraft approached Hughes and demanded that Dumaw start on the special teams unit.

Souza said that he and Ashcraft then had an argument over the situation before the game. At halftime, Souza said that Ashcraft “blew up on the team,” and that it was clear to him that it was pointed at the coaches.

As the team began to leave the locker room for the second half, Souza said he and Ashcraft continued exchanging words in private. They went back out and won the game and improved to 3-1 on the season, but the tension between the two coaches boiled over afterward.

The two had one last heated exchange before Souza left the locker room.

Souza said that he received a phone call from Ashcraft the following day, in which he offered a heartfelt apology.

Souza said that he told Ashcraft that his actions contradicted what he had been working two years to build, and that it wasn’t just going to fall back into place easily.

Then, according to Souza, Ashcraft continued the argument from the night before, and at that point, Souza told him he would no longer coach for him.

“When I took time and really thought about it, the culture of the team was something that a group of men created and it was supposed to be a positive impact in the community,” Souza said. “As (Ashcraft) started to change, it became very clear that he wanted the team to go in a direction that wasn’t that. And it became clear that his values weren’t the same as the other men in that locker room. I can only act for myself, when that became clear to me, I no longer was going to give 1,500 hours a year to a man that ran that team.”

Souza said that once he officially left the Red and Black, he began getting phone calls from other teams.

“It’s frustrating to see something that was going so positive and so well for six months, because for whatever reason he started to get an ego or he wanted to play head coach, so to speak, go down the drain,” Souza said. “A direct result of his actions over that month period is that, since then, I’ve been talking to other teams, one of which was Syracuse.”

Souza agreed to become the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator of the Shock in December. Soon thereafter, other coaches decided to go with him, one being 14-year Red and Black veteran, Aaron Brown.

Brown played for the team for 13 years on both lines before moving to the coaching staff last year.

Brown said he made the move to honor a pact between the four defecting coaches to stay together, and because it was the right move for his coaching career.

“I bled the colors for 15 years, but I’m trying to move on with my career as a coach,” Brown said. “The move I made was for my coaching career. We’ve all put a lot of time in together and I like working with those guys. We work well together and I wanted to keep it that way. It’s nothing against anybody with the Red and Black.”

As for players, Williams said there was a group of veterans that wanted to leave when Souza did, but they decided as a group to stay on board and finish the season.

“We play for our teammates, we don’t necessarily play for coaches, so a lot of us wanted to finish what we started,” Williams said.

“It was almost like a domino effect for players. Midway through the season when we lost Ammbrose Souza, there were many of us that were ready to walk right then and there and we got together as a group and said let’s finish this out for the young kids. For the younger guys, and for us, let’s finish this out,” Williams added.

Amid the turmoil, the Red and Black managed to finish the season with an 8-4 record, falling just a game short of the EFL championship.

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