08/29/13 12:15pm
08/29/2013 12:15 PM
GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Jackie Spinella may become the first girl to try out for Bishop McGann-Mercy's football team, according to coach Jeff Doroski.

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Jackie Spinella may become the first girl to try out for Bishop McGann-Mercy’s football team, according to coach Jeff Doroski.

Jackie Spinella seemed a little uncomfortable by all the attention. Asked if she felt like a trailblazer, she laughed. “I don’t know, I guess,” she said.

The truth is, it’s much simpler to Spinella than breaking a gender barrier. The Riverhead girl just wants to try playing football. Nothing more, nothing less.

Spinella, an incoming senior at Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School, said she enjoys watching the sport as a spectator on television or in the stands. Now, however, see is seeing football from a perspective that few girls ever do: as a player.

Spinella is trying out for the McGann-Mercy football team as an offensive lineman. She is the first girl in the school’s history to come out for football, according to coach Jeff Doroski, who played for the Monarchs himself in the 1990s.

“I kind of wanted to get the experience, so why not?” she said. “I don’t see a reason why a girl can’t” play football.

Spinella, who has a background in basketball, softball, and track and field, first approached Doroski this past winter about coming out for the team. Doroski said he asked her if she was sure, she said she was, and he told her she would need clearance from her parents, the athletic director, Section XI, the school doctor and undergo physical tests. Players heard talk in the spring that Spinella was going to come out for the team. When they saw her in the weight room, working out with them, they knew it was more than talk.

By the first preseason practice, Spinella was alongside the other players, ready to sweat through two-a-day practices and prove her courage, not only of the physical kind. She also had to have the courage to be the only girl in training camp, a one-girl team within a team. On top of that, her previous football experience was nil.

That can be scary for anyone.

“I’m nervous every day,” Spinella chuckled one morning last week after participating in the team’s sixth practice in four days. “Every day I try and tell myself: ‘Just pull yourself together and work at it. You can do it, you can make it.’ ”

Doroski said that knowing the type of person that Spinella is, he knew from the start that this wasn’t a gimmick or a publicity stunt. His players soon discovered that as well, watching her do every drill they did.

“She’s hitting as hard as us,” said Colin Ratsey, a senior lineman. He added: “She’ll get knocked down. She’s just like any other guy. She gets right back up, no problems. She’s got to prove herself out on the field, and she did, definitely, so far.”

Doroski has continually offered his encouragement. He said Spinella does not receive special treatment and is viewed as just another one of the players.

“She’s been very committed, and she stepped up to the challenge,” he said. “She hasn’t asked out of any drill. She hasn’t asked out of any conditioning. She’s done everything the guys have done.”

“I think our guys have just accepted her as being a part of the team,” he continued. “… She’s earned the respect by what she’s done.”

Pat Rossi, a senior who plays middle linebacker and guard, said his teammates have been supportive of Spinella.

“We encourage her, but at the same time, we don’t give her any special treatment,” he said. “She’s out there, she’s with us, she’s doing all the same things we’re doing. She’s one of us.”

Little boys are taught at a young age not to hit a girl. That is an inclination the boys on the team have had to overcome during drills. Rossi said players may have been reticent about hitting Spinella too hard in the first days of practice, but after a while they tend to forget that she is a girl. Football is a fast-moving game, with helmets, pads and uniform numbers flashing by in an instant, with little or no time to determine who is hitting who.

Last Thursday morning the linemen went through one-on-one contact drills. “I got knocked down a few times,” Spinella said. “It’s going to happen a lot.”

Spinella, who is the school’s Student Organization president, has naturally drawn curiosity from friends, who ask her what practice is like. She tells them it’s hard.

“I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, because I think it’s really hard,” she said. She added: “It’s a different experience. I never dealt with something like this before. It’s really different.”

Doroski said Spinella has done a “great job” on the field. “This would be tough for anybody,” he said. “To come in and do what she has done up to this point, I give her a lot of credit.

“My thing to her is I said: ‘Stick with it. It’s hard. This is really the toughest part of football. You got to get through these next two weeks. You made it this far, you might as well keep it going.’ ”

The mental part of the game is no breeze, either, especially for a newcomer who has to learn a new language with football terms like inside zones, boots and waggles. Even so, Doroski said Spinella is ahead of some other players in her understanding of schemes and Xs and Os.

When the prospect was raised of her being in uniform for the team’s season opener on Sept. 12 at Shoreham-Wading River, Spinella’s eyes lit up.

“Being there, just like in itself, I think that [would be] awesome,” she said. “Even if I’m not playing, I think supporting the team is awesome in itself.”

If things continue the way they have been going, it sounds as if there is a good chance that Spinella will be wearing a helmet and pads that day.

“She’s going to wear a uniform,” Doroski said. “She’ll be part of our program. You know, obviously, I’m not going to put her on the field just to put her on the field. I’m not going to use it as a gimmick. She’s going to have to earn the right to go out there and play just like the rest of our guys, and if we have opportunities, and she earns the right, and we can get her in some situations, sure, I’m going to do that.”

When the school year starts, it seems likely that Spinella will become the talk of the school, the girl who plays football. With that may come a mini-celebrity status, but it is not something she is looking for.

“I don’t really think it’s that big of a deal,” she said. “I think maybe it will be something for a week or two and then it will die down, hopefully.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

08/21/13 7:00pm
08/21/2013 7:00 PM
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Colin Ratsey (6-foot-4, 273 pounds) is Bishop McGann-Mercy's largest player and a big piece of the Monarchs' line.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Colin Ratsey (6-foot-4, 273 pounds) is Bishop McGann-Mercy’s largest player and a big piece of the Monarchs’ line.

One doesn’t have to think too hard to imagine what football coach Jeff Doroski must have been thinking when he saw the hulking figure of Colin Ratsey walking through the hallways of Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School several years ago. And one need not imagine what Doroski’s response was when he learned that Ratsey was a golfer, of all things.

Doroski recalled: “I was like, ‘Golf? What are you doing? Golf?’ ”

Then Doroski went on to convince Ratsey that he has the rest of his life to play golf, but only a few more years to play football for McGann-Mercy. He got his recruit.

Years later, that recruiting pitch seems more important than ever now that Ratsey assumes valuable places on both the offensive and defensive lines for the Monarchs. At 6-feet-4, 273 pounds, the senior is the biggest player on the team, and big things are being asked of him this year.
He is also a big piece of the puzzle. It is considered vital that Ratsey, who aside from senior Pat Marelli, is the team’s only returning lineman, does well this year.

“Has to,” said Doroski.

McGann-Mercy lost some good linemen from last year’s playoff team in Ray Ellis, Chris Motlenski and Jack Strnad. That means a new line with a revamped role for Ratsey.

“Everybody knows he can do it, but he has to show it now,” said Marelli.

Ratsey started all but one game last year for the Monarchs, playing guard and defensive tackle. It’s up in the air where exactly he will play on the lines this year. Marelli will play center and middle linebacker. “With the zone blocking scheme, it’s pretty much the same no matter where you are in those five positions up front,” said Doroski.

And it sounds as if it doesn’t make much of a difference to Ratsey, either. “Wherever they need me, I’ll block, and wherever they need me on defense, you know, I’ll get through the line and do the best I can,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll have a great season.”

That is what the Monarchs are counting on. It goes without saying that backs and receivers get most of the attention and acclaim, but linemen may have more to do with wins and losses than anyone else on the field.

“We’re excited about what he’s capable of doing for us this year,” Doroski said. “He’s got good feet. He can move around pretty good. He’s not one of those slow, lumbering big guys. He can move around pretty good for a big guy. This has the potential to be a very good year for him, and if it is, it’s going to make us that much better.”

So far, outside linebacker/fullback Luis Cintron likes what he has seen from Ratsey. “He’s looking great,” said Cintron.

Ratsey, who lives in Greenport, has attended Catholic schools his whole life. He had played four years for the Peconic Panthers youth football program and is familiar with the current players on the Greenport/Southold/Mattituck/Shelter Island team. “I know the whole team,” he said. “They always smack talk, but I’m not worried about it.”

Ratsey has twice played against the Porters. The thought has undoubtedly crossed his mind that under different circumstances he could very well be on the other side of the line wearing different colors. This year the teams aren’t scheduled to play each other, but Ratsey looks forward to meeting his hometown buddies in a scrimmage.

Ironically, a former McGann-Mercy linemen, senior Owen Finnigan, has joined the Porters this summer.

Thanks to that fateful hallway meeting with Doroski, Ratsey’s athletic course changed as he embraced football.

“Right away I loved it,” he said. “Now it’s my passion.”

Golf will have to wait.

bliepa@timesreview.com