Tuesday August 5th, 2008

Ric Wright headed to the weight room Monday, where the usual crowd of about 25 of his Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High football players waited to start their workout. The number of players showing up for workouts has dropped only slightly from previous years, Wright said.

Like Wright, that core group of players refuses to consider the possibility of giving up football at Mount Vernon, even if they have to raise the money themselves to fund the season. "We're still pushing," Wright said.

Wright, his players and the rest of the coaches and athletes at the school must raise the money because Mount Vernon voters -- unhappy with the school district's fiscal management and unconvinced that higher taxes would solve the problem -- struck down two school budget proposals. That forced the school to adopt an austerity budget in late June that eliminated funding for athletics. To keep Mount Vernon's entire sports program intact for all of 2008-09, the group must raise $950,000. The situation at Mount Vernon is extreme, but it is not unique; throughout the nation, school districts are struggling to fund sports.

Wright and the other coaches set a goal of $300,000 by Sunday to fund all fall sports at the varsity, junior varsity and freshman levels. As of Monday, they had raised $91,000, according to Desiree Grand, a spokeswoman for the school district. As the clock ticked in the fourth quarter of the Knights' first fundraising drive, district officials met to decide how best to proceed. Grand said district officials won't publicly discuss options until after the deadline passes, but Wright offered a hint at a possible resolution. Unless a boatload of money arrives in the next few days, junior varsity and freshman teams may be cut.

Wright believes the athletes, who raised more than $19,000 during a weekend last month by standing on street corners and soliciting money from passing motorists, will play this season, but they may all have to play at the varsity level. The district can't commit to spending money on the hope that it might come in, Wright said.

"It's going to hurt," Wright said. "But the reality is that we're in crisis mode. We can't take for granted the money is going to be there. You can't start spending like you have it."

Still, the football, cross country, volleyball and other fall sports teams will prepare to play. Wright said football practice begins Aug. 20, and he intends to be there with his whistle. "We feel confident that we're going to have a varsity season," Wright said. "It's not guaranteed, but we're pretty positive about that."

Wright's players are more than positive. "We're playing," Mount Vernon lineman Mitchell Jackson told The Journal News. "If you don't believe that, you shouldn't be here."

Mount Vernon's athletic alumni association will hold a fundraising dinner Friday, two days prior to the deadline. After Sunday, fundraising will continue to help salvage winter and spring sports. That, of course, includes Mount Vernon's boys basketball team, which has won four New York public school state titles in the past eight years. And while Coach Bob Cimmino's team enjoys exalted status in the prep basketball world, it is in the same boat as the other Mount Vernon teams. Fortunately, the basketball team has one particularly successful alumnus who is working to ensure all Knights' athletes play this season.

Chicago Bulls star Ben Gordon, who shined at Mount Vernon before moving on to the University of Connecticut, plans to give half of the proceeds from his annual Ben's Bowling Bash and Celebrity Fundraiser on Aug. 15 to Mount Vernon's Save Our Sports initiative. The other half will go to Gordon's non-profit foundation.

Still, Gordon's fundraiser could come too late to save an important piece of the school's athletic program. That's why Mount Vernon coaches, athletes and community leaders will spend the rest of the week trying to raise more money before the whistle sounds Sunday.

Those wishing to donate to Mount Vernon's athletic program can call (914) 665-6786, or send a tax-deductible contribution to the Mount Vernon Educational Foundation Inc., Attn: Ronnie Cox, President, P.O. Box 476, Fleetwood Station, Mount Vernon, NY 10552. The district asks that donors write "Sports" in the memo section of each check.

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