After dramatic turnaround, York High returns to District 3 football playoffs

Patrick Strohecker
York Dispatch
  • York High is back in the District 3 football playoffs for the first time since 2010.
  • The Bearcats were crowned Division I co-champions with Dallastown this season.
  • The Bearcats finished this season 9-1 after going 1-9 in 2016.
  • York will face Governor Mifflin in the District 3 5-A quarterfinals on Friday night.

York High football coach Russ Stoner has seen the forecast for Friday night, Nov. 10, and he's got a problem on his hands.

York High's Seth Bernstein (left) and Blake King celebrate York High's Week 10 victory over Central York, 26-19, on Nov. 3, 2017. The win gave the Bearcats a share of the Division I crown. John A. Pavoncello photo

It's supposed to be cold. Much colder than it's been on any Friday night for the past 10 weeks.

With temperatures expected to dip below freezing by the time the Bearcats kick off, Stoner knows his players are going to need hand warmers during the game. The only problem is that the York High football program doesn't have any. So, he's had less than a week to find enough cold-weather gear to keep his players' hands from getting numb during the game.

It's a problem, but a good problem.

The Bearcats will play in a District 3 playoff game for the first time since 2010. Having to deal with the frigid conditions of central Pennsylvania during the second week of November is just part of the package.

Friday, fifth-seeded York High will snap that district drought when it takes the field against No. 4 Governor Mifflin in the quarterfinals of the Class 5-A tournament. It'll signify a dramatic turnaround for the program in just a few years. The Bearcats went 0-10 in 2015 and 1-9 in 2016, but enter this postseason at 9-1 and as York-Adams League Division I co-champions.

"I don't know if I would say I'm surprised," Stoner said about the quick improvement of the team. "...We have some great athletes and great kids that have worked hard. I'm not surprised at all. We want to make sure that we're building the program. Even this playoff piece is part of a process that the kids have to learn what the playoffs mean."

After going 1-9 in Russ Stoner's first year as York High head coach in 2016, the Bearcats completed a dramatic turnaround in his second year, going 9-1 this season. John A. Pavoncello photo

Uncharted territory: For players in the program, having practice this week is unfamiliar. 

Normally, the week after the regular season ends marks the start of some much-needed down time, or preparing for other sports.

Senior running back Khalid Dorsey said the week after football ends is usually reserved for playing video games, until he has the itch to get back into football. Senior linebacker Josiah Smallwood will turn his focus to basketball, which he plays in the winter to stay in shape.

Both of them, however, speak on behalf of everyone else on the team when they say that they'll gladly take the extra week of practice, since it comes with participating in the playoffs.

"It's big because this is where you show off," Dorsey said. "This is where you can show that you can play with the big dogs. So, my team and me, we just gotta stay focused practice hard, get a good week of practice in and go up to Governor Mifflin and show them what we're working with."

York High's Khalid Dorsey slips a tackle by Quinn Bacha of Central York to score a touchdown for the Bearcats, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. Dorsey, who is receiving NCAA Division I offers to play in college, finished second in the Y-A League in rushing in 2017.  John A. Pavoncello photo

Withstanding hardships: To get to this point, York High had to go through some serious rough patches to find the bright lights of playoff football.

Forget the fact that it's been seven seasons between postseason appearances and the program was a combined 1-19 in the two years before this campaign. That doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what the players and coaches within the program had to endure.

There was a coaching change, with Stoner taking over the program before the 2016 season, creating a culture change within the program.

Then, during last season, there was a shooting in the parking lot of Small Athletic Field during the team's home opener, prompting all remaining 2016 home games to be played on Saturday afternoons.

Stoner was threatened by one of his former players from his Central York days, and a teammate, Eugene Hillian IV, was murdered in the middle of the season.

Football games weren't a safe haven from the city's violence.

York High sews up share of York-Adams Division I football crown with win over Central York

This year, however, there's a sense of pride surrounding the program. Stoner said he's had people contact him that look forward to every Friday night to watch the football team play, while students at the school are turning up more frequently to games.

The players have become local celebrities around the streets of York and a sign of something positive that belongs to the entire city.

"A bunch of people come to the football games now," Smallwood said. "When we walk down the street, people know who we are. It's not just like, 'Oh, that's York High. They went 0-10.' ...The city is more alive. It feels good."

The York High Bearcats dance as the school's marching band performs following a home game against Central York, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Year's worth of preparation: Nov. 11, 2016 sticks out in Stoner's head as a key date for his program.

Usually, when the season ends for one of his football teams, he likes to give his players until after Christmas to be away from football. That was supposed to again be the case last season.

Instead, he began receiving phone calls, text messages and Facebook messages from players on the team on Nov. 11 that they were ready to start preparing for the 2017 season.

So, the players hit the weight room and the gym to go through offseason workouts in the hopes of getting better.

Now, almost exactly a year after starting work for 2017, the Bearcats will be on the field on Friday night, playing in a playoff football game for the first time in seven years.

Most programs will say they worked all year for that moment. 

York High truly has.

"The date Nov. 11 is kind of the date that sticks in my mind that the kids were starting to text me and call me and Facebook me saying, 'Coach, we want to start,'" Stoner said. "... I think this Saturday is Nov. 11. To think that, basically we've been preparing for a year straight, it's been tremendous."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at