A giant wind turbine chops through the coastal breeze steps away from Hull High School. The towering installation can be seen from miles away, peacefully spinning. But standing under the behemoth, the noise is jarring.
Whoosh … Whoosh … Whoosh.
As the turbine churns, its football-field-sized blades cast long, swirling shadows on Hull's athletic fields. It represents the crucible faced by Hull's administration in saving its sports, the Sword of Damocles that hangs over the athletic community's head.
Athletic director Jim Quatromoni, principal Michael Devine and booster president Nancy Sullivan sit around a conference table at the school. The turbine isn't visible from this side of the building, just the placid waters of Hull Bay. But as sure as the gales still blow, the blades continue spinning. Out of sight, but not out of mind.
"If we get through this year without losing a team, I'll be shocked," Devine said.
"Last year, I was optimistic that we were going to be able to pull it off. This year, if we pull it off without losing a team, it'll be amazing. If we find ourselves in the same situation a year from now, then I can guarantee that we'll lose programs."
On May 17, voters in the town of Hull rejected a tax-limit override, 1,783 to 1,309. Of the proposed $2.3 million that was to be allocated to the school system, more than $180,000 would have gone toward funding the athletic program. That would have covered little more than half of this year's athletic budget.
"The town of Hull has been incredibly generous in giving us three beautiful, state-of-the-art school buildings, which were all done through town votes," Devine said. "With the economy being tough as it is, the town has taken some pretty big cuts and every department has been touched … I think people voted what they thought they could afford."
Quatromoni added: "It's math."
The calculus behind how to keep the Pirates' ship sailing without town funding has consumed Quatromoni.
It isn't the first time this has happened, though. In 1989, when Quatromoni was entering his junior year at Hull High School, he and his classmates were told there was no funding for athletics. But Hull fielded its full complement of sports teams that year when a group of parents banded together with the boosters association and funded a large part of the program on their own.
Flash forward to 2008, and Hull again faced the dilemma of survival without town funding -- only this time Quatromoni was tasked with finding a solution to the problem as athletic director. Without the $265,000 allocated to the high school athletic budget, Quatromoni set into motion a plan for sustaining the program through the year, relying on user fees, gate receipts and donations. He reduced team schedules by at least 10 percent. Team equipment budgets were slashed. Spectators, who had been admitted to games free of charge, now had to pay at the gate. The athletes had to raise funds, soliciting their family members and neighbors for money to keep the program going.
Quatromoni even involved his newly implanted hip in the scheme. He ran a triathlon on Nantasket Beach less than four months after hip replacement surgery to net $6,000 for the program.
Hull ended up not cutting any of its 27 varsity sports offerings last year.
"We didn't cut any kids last year and that was very important to us," Quatromoni said. "No one walked away wishing to play."
It was a success in every conceivable way.
Aside from staving off extinction, participation actually increased in the athletic program. Four more students went out for sports in 2009-10 than in 2008-09, a 3 percent increase. Not only were the numbers higher, the boys' soccer team earned its first state tournament berth. Hull's football team also notched a notable 15-7 win over previously undefeated Cohasset on Thanksgiving Day, which Quatromoni said, "might have been the best moment in all my time here and that's coming from the basketball coach."
However, for all the positives that came out of last year, the writing remains on the wall.
"The hardest part of this ordeal is trying to move things forward as you're trying to keep things afloat," Quatromoni said. "It's something that I struggle with often. You want to have a one-year plan, a two-year plan and so on. You want to be pushing things forward. But it's hard to convince myself in the value of just keeping things afloat."
Nicole Heavern is a three-sport athlete (soccer, basketball and lacrosse). She earns good grades. She's treasurer of Hull's senior class. Nikki, as her friends know her, is considering Bowdoin, Colby, Bates and Stonehill among her college choices. A 5-foot-10 guard, Heavern would like to play basketball at the next level. She plays almost year-round, between the Bay State Magic AAU team and Hull's fall league.
Everything would seem to be in place for Heavern to get into the school of her dreams.
Then, she tells college coaches that she might not be playing basketball this winter. And that raises eyebrows.
"Coaches don't understand what I'm saying," Heavern said. "They've never heard anything like it."
As presently constituted, Hull's athletic budget carries it only through the fall season. Anything beyond that Quatromoni cannot guarantee, so Heavern's senior basketball season is in jeopardy.
"It's definitely nerve-racking," Heavern said. "It makes it harder looking at colleges. I've told coaches that I can give them the schedule that I have, but that it could change."
Heavern has lived her entire life in the town of 11,000. Before high school, she played in the town's youth soccer, basketball, lacrosse and softball leagues. Her parents were also raised in Hull and played sports at the high school.
Like many of her friends at school, Heavern works in the summer. Along Nantasket Avenue, at the arcades, souvenir shops and restaurants scattered around the remnants of what used to be Paragon Park, it's more than probable that there's a Hull High student working behind the counter or taking orders inside.
It's part of growing up in Hull. The same goes for playing sports.
"For me, it's a bond that everybody shares in the school because we're so small," Heavern said. "Almost everybody plays a sport and it's a community that brings everybody in the school closer together."
The cause of funding Hull's athletic programs has pushed many into taking more active civic roles, including the students. Over the past year or so, Hull's school committee and town meetings have hosted a contingent of Hull athletes petitioning for support.
Nancy Sullivan has four daughters who all graduated from Hull High. She has been involved with the PTO since her first daughter -- now 26 years old -- enrolled in kindergarten.
As president of the athletic boosters, Sullivan takes pride in telling the story of a hockey player a few years back who'd never skated but "wanted to take up hockey in the worst way." The teenager didn't have the money to buy the equipment needed to try out.
"So the boosters chipped in to buy him everything he needed," Sullivan said. "That's what we're supposed to be doing, not making sure that the games go on."
Sullivan and all the concerned parties realize the situation has come to a critical mass. There are only so many times you can go to the well before people start to tune you out. Sullivan blasts out e-mails asking for people's assistance at such a pace that she hopes her address hasn't been added to everyone's spam filter.
No matter how many "Meadow Muffin" fundraisers or tag days can be organized, ultimately it comes down to consensus.
"Eventually, the town is going to have to make a decision," Devine said. "Either sports are worth having, and if they're worth saving, they're worth funding. If they're not worth being funded, then the town is sending a pretty clear message they're not worth having."
And if the money isn't there?
"This is it," Quatromoni said. "All we can do is go for broke."
Scott Barboza covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com.