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York High football team determined to continue progress

Patrick Strohecker
505-5402/@P_Strohecker
  • York High's football game on Friday night was ended early because of a shooting outside the stadium.
  • Despite being winless, the Bearcats have already scored more points in two games than it did in the first five games of 2015.
  • The school board will vote next Wednesday about changing York High's remaining home games to Saturday afternoons.

The York High football players felt cheated.

York High senior defensive end Marcus Mitchell, 17, lifts before Tuesday's practice. The Bearcats are determined that Friday's shooting in the Small Field parking won't negatively impact their season.

Sure, much of it had to do with the fact that their home opener against J.P. McCaskey ended with about eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter because of a shooting in the Small Field parking lot. The players also felt cheated, however, because football is a safe space for them to escape the violence that plagues York City. Friday night, the Bearcats couldn't even enjoy that.

A few days have passed since the game and the shooting, but the aftermath still reverberates throughout the school and city. Almost every ensuing day brought some new development in the story, whether it was the release of the names of the two victims, or the fact that the school will vote on moving the four remaining home games to Saturday afternoon, or, most recently, the name of the suspect in the shootings.

Friday's game, which was supposed to be a night full of fanfare and community togetherness, turned into a massive news story. The York High football team, however, is determined that the negative story won't have a negative impact on their team and their season. Instead, they're hoping to turn a negative into a positive.

"I hope it has a huge impact," head coach Russell Stoner said before Tuesday's practice. "What I'm hoping is it's the impact that we're going to make this thing even bigger. It's not about an isolated episode that happened in the parking lot. It's about the episode that's happening on this field and the amount of kids that are playing football again. ... I want everybody to look at this thing and say, 'You know what, we're going to get behind this thing even more.' We're not just going to build a football program, but build our community back again."

​A resurrection: Since Stoner took over the program back in March, he's spoken about reviving a lost football program and helping it find its way back to competitiveness, and eventually, back to its glory days.

Coming off an 0-10 season in which player turnout dwindled to the 20s at times — considerably low for a 1-A program, let alone a 5-A school — Stoner first had to sell players on what he was building. To his credit, he did that, with more than 60 players on the junior varsity/varsity roster and more than 50 on the freshman roster.

Suspect sought in York High football game shooting

Getting players to come out was the first step in the revival, and that was accomplished. The next phase was to make the Bearcats competitive again, which he's started to do. Wins still haven't followed, but, the infancy stages of this rebuilding project can't be measured in wins and losses just yet.

The team has players that actually rank near the top in the York-Adams League statistics, something that was non-existent last year, an exhibit that the team is developing athletes into football players. So far, in two games, York High has scored 30 points. That might not seem significant, but, last year's team didn't reach that total until its fifth game. So the growth is apparent. There's still a ways to go, however.

"I'm not a moral victory guy," Stoner said. "Most of the people that know me in the county know that I'm a guy who likes to win. We've hurt ourselves in both games. There's a lot of football that wasn't learned here in the past several years. We're teaching football. We have a lot of great kids, great athletes, but we don't want to be known just as great athletes. We want to be known as great football players."

Change in attitude: What has also changed about the team is the attitude with the players.

York High football coach Russell Stoner was allegedly threatened during a football game last week, according to police.

Under the old coaching regime, players said they could get away with nearly anything. This year, however, the players are being held to higher standards. They're forced to attend mandatory study hall sessions after school and then show up to practice afterward.

Now the players must deal with the very real possibility that they won't play any more Friday night home games this season. Playing under the lights on Friday is a staple of high school football. The school board on Wednesday will vote on moving the team's remaining home games until noon on Saturday. Some players are upset about that possibility, but Stoner said the team is embracing whatever happens and will show up to play whenever it must.

"There are some that are upset," he said. "...Ultimately, I know this. This community is going to support us whether it's Friday nights, whether it's Saturday mornings, whether it's Sunday afternoons. Whatever it is, we're going to do our best to put the best product on the field we can, we're going to do our best to make sure our kids are doing great things academically and socially."

HEISER: York High will likely make sad, but right, call

Moving forward: Stoner will likely receive a lot of the credit for changing the culture surrounding Bearcat football. However, it has just as much to do with the players, if not more.

He laid out a plan to entice the kids, hoping they'd buy into it. It took the players a level of trust to believe that, in time, the plan will work. The seniors, and maybe even the juniors, may not see the fruits of the plan, but they're helping to set the foundation.

They're determined that one incident won't derail months of hard work. They're determined the shooting won't define the program or what it's striving to become.

"I don't want anybody to think that we're sitting here and saying, 'Woe is me,'" Stoner said. "We're big boys and we're going to continue to work and continue to build a football program."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com