Swanton—The MVU Thunderbirds football program made a tough but necessary decision last year. Head coach Chad Cioffi and the staff opted to move the young team back to junior varsity after injuries and low numbers caused the team to forfeit the last two games of the 2018 season.
The step might seem like a backward move to some, but to Chad, it's a step in the right direction.
"We made this choice to help the MVU football program survive. The kids understand that, and they've taken ownership of the change," said Chad.
"We were so pleased to see amount of pride that the kids came in with this year. They were ready to work to get the team back to varsity status as quickly as possible."
Chad was pleased with the response from the older players on the team. Ethan Kelleher, one of the seniors on the football team, understood that the step down to JVU could cost him some playing time his senior year.
"Ethan has been a part of MVU football since its inception," said Chad. "He let me know that he wanted to do what was best for the program going forward. It wasn't just about him or his younger brother, it was about the whole team."
Ethan wasn't alone in his perspective on the development of the team. All five seniors on the MVU squad gave the Cioffi's their support.
"Philip Robear is a kid that shows up every day and has the best attitude you could hope for. He could care less about playing time, he wanted to see the program survive."
Max Lavo, a talented senior running back and linebacker, was another one who responded graciously.
"Max just asked me what he needed to do," said Cioffi. "They've all worn a player-coach hat and been huge advocates for the younger guys, and the younger players learn so much from them."
Chad came to MVU in 2018 ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and he didn't come alone. He was joined by Franklin County football legend, Robert Cioffi, his father.
Robert was one of the founders of the St. Albans Steelers youth football program and the possessor of a wealth of knowledge when it came to building a program from the ground up.
"In a lot of ways being part of this team makes him very nostalgic of the program he helped start in 1980. We're very much at the grassroots of MVU football right now," said Chad.
Relationships are paramount to the Cioffi coaching staff, and Chad credits his father for instilling that in him.
"My dad's always preached the relationship aspect of coaching. He's enjoyed that aspect the most, whether it's with his staff, his players, or the parents of his players," said Chad.
One characteristic of the relationships on this year's team, the presence of four pairs of brothers, has added a unique feel.
Cole Tipper and his twin brother Reed both began playing football at the high school level.
"We go over plays together and learn together. It makes it easier when you have someone to learn with," said Cole.
Ethan Kelleher has played on the MVU football team for four years. His brother Jakob, a junior, has played for three.
Ethan began as a fullback and middle linebacker, but with the switch to JV, he's now left guard and nose guard. He's accepted the new role, and now helps younger players learn the positions he used to play.
"I think it's good for the underclassmen to have that senior role model to look up to," said Ethan, “and we are there to help them if they have any questions about plays or formations."
Playing as brothers was nothing new to the Kellehers.
"Tristan, my older brother, and I played together my freshman year, and last year and the year before all three of us played together,' said Ethan, smiling.
Ethan also praised his head coach who's helped the team navigate all the changes.
"Coach Chad is awesome. I met him during the interview process, and I knew I wanted him to be our coach. He's a big mentor to us, and he's helped us all so much."
Jakob Kelleher, who switches roles frequently, spending time at quarterback and fullback on offense and as a linebacker and defensive guard on defense, spoke of all of his 'brothers.'
"It was so great that I could play that long with my brothers, but this whole team," said Jakob, "they are all brothers to me."
The game of football has impacted Jakob's life in many ways but the value of resiliency has been one of his greatest takeaways.
"We're a program that's notorious for losing, but no matter how much we lose, we keep getting up and we keep going."
Austin Britch, a sophomore wide receiver on offense and corner and safety on defense, loves the family aspect of the team.
"As a freshman, I learned that whenever you're on this team you always feel like you're family!" said Austin.
Junior, Noah Morris, has played football since he was a freshman.
“Football is a physical sport and it's very demanding,” said Noah. “You have to be physically and mentally prepared before each game."
Avery, Noah's younger brother, is a freshman on the team this year. The two have enjoyed their first opportunity to play together.
"I love being on the line, looking back and seeing him as the quarterback. I'm very proud of him," said Noah. "We always compete. We go against each other in hitting drills or in running. I love the competition we have; it makes us better."
Noah spoke of Rob and Chad Cioffi with admiration and fondness.
"I love Coach Rob! And from what I've heard, I think he's probably one of the best coaches in the state," said Noah. "He taught his son well, too."
Unlike many of the MVU players, Noah's brother Avery played football at the youth level before moving to Vermont.
As the starting quarterback for MVU, Avery relies on the players around him regularly.
"You have to trust your team and allow them to guard you," said Avery. "You have to make sure they're doing their job, and when they're not, you pat them on the back and tell them they'll get it next time."
The first game of the season against Fairfax, stood out to Avery.
"We were getting beat, but we picked up our game and decided to play as a team. Even the ones who didn't play or weren't able to play were cheering us on," said Avery. "I was so proud of our team."
Like the others, Avery has also enjoyed working with the coaching staff at MVU.
"Coach Cioffi, Coach Mooney, Coach Rob, I love them all equally. Coach Rob pushes me and makes sure I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do."
The gratitude the MVU football players have for the program and the respect and love they have for each other is genuine.
"It's a brotherhood out there and we need to take care of each other," said Avery. 'I love the brotherhood that comes with football."