SPRINGVILLE — When Springville defeated Gowanda 34-0 on Oct. 25, there was a different head wearing the coaching hat. Springville head football coach John Sopko was placed on administrative leave, in the morning of Springville’s week-eight matchup with Gowanda, for reasons the S-GI district is not at liberty to discuss, at this time.
Rob Valenti, the team’s assistant coach, who is the defensive coordinator and coaches the offensive line, took over Sopko’s duties as head coach.
Springville-Griffith Institute Superintendent of Schools Paul Connelly said that he will be investigating “very serious allegations” that have come to his attention.
“Since it is a personnel issue, we are not at liberty to discuss it, at this time,” Connelly said. He added that the district is investigating the issue, through the appropriate official, channels.
During the Oct. 8 Springville-Griffith Institute Board of Education meeting, Springville resident Steve Conklin addressed the board about an incident at Springville’s homecoming football game on Sept. 27.
“With about one minute remaining, a play was called that ultimately cost Springville the game,” Conklin told the board. “A large amount of Springville fans began to shout out their displeasure with the play calling of the head coach.”
After that play, Conklin said that he saw Sopko give the fans a “rude gesture.”
Glenwood resident Mike Hannon addressed the board in the same meeting, with regard to fan conduct at recent games.
“It was embarrassing to see what was going on; it was embarrassing to have our kids called for the plays that they didn’t make,” said Hannon, to the board. “One of the problems we have, throughout the United States is, who wants to be a coach? Who wants to be involved, when things are out of control? Things here have gotten out of control. We have to respect our coaches.”
Following the meeting, Hannon confirmed that a few Springville fans yelled out obscenities toward Springville coaches and players, during the Sept. 27 contest, as well as other games he’s attended, as a fan and as a parent of a player.
Several S-GI varsity football players, who have played under Sopko, also spoke about the issue.
“I think the whole situation is a mess,” said Springville senior Nate Wolcott. “Coach Sopko brought this program back and now there are people trying to get rid of him. I personally think he is a great coach and it’s a shame.”
“The whole thing is nonsense,” said senior Andy Suffoletto. “It should have never came to this. [How] do you expect a football team to play as a team, while you are tearing them apart, by diminishing a coach? John Sopko is a good man in general, not just as a coach, but as a man. He will do anything to help anyone.”
“It’s ridiculous. Coach Sopko would not do something like making an obscene gesture at our crowd,” said Springville’s junior quarterback Devin White-Kearns. “He’s just not like that. He teaches us respect. Yes, the crowd was making rude comments to him and us players, but he wouldn’t do anything like that. It’s just not him. He is the type of coach that puts in that extra time for us players. He loves us and we love him.”
Valenti has been involved with the S-GI football program for five years. He had spent four of those years with Sopko, as the team’s defensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
“In regards to the decision to relieve coach Sopko, they came down swift, they came down fast, they came down unexpectedly,” said Valenti, who transitioned into the head coach role, during the game. “The challenge was to deliver the news to kids and make sure that all the answers that could be provided to them were given to them. On a weekly basis, on a monthly basis, on an annual basis, these kids have put their time in.
“Certainly, we had expectations, this season,” Valenti continued. “The expectation was not to finish in seventh place. The expectation was not to miss the playoffs. Our kids have been dealing with a lot, all year. They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity. The win was bittersweet.”
The Springville men won their third game of the year, by shutting out Gowanda 34-0, on a cold and rainy Friday night. The win ended Springville’s two-game losing skid and improved the team’s record to 3-5.
“These kids have gone through a lot,” added Valenti. “In a lot of ways, life has turned them into adults but in a lot of ways, they’re still kids. Having to deliver a very difficult message; I think there was a wave of emotion ... The one thing that didn’t waver was their desire to play. In a lot of ways they took that emotion, channeled it [against Gowanda].”
Springville closed out their season on Oct. 30 against Lewiston-Porter.
The official investigation into the allegations against Sopko is ongoing, and information will be released as it becomes available.