Red Lion High School football team prepares for season with altered schedule, new QB
- Red Lion will play JP McCaskey in its first Week Zero game due to District 3 playoff changes.
- A 1-3 end to last season has motivated the Lions to win a Division I title like they did in 2016.
- Zach Mentzer steps in for departing quarterback Zach Throne, who accounted for 36 scores last year.
No more summer vacations. No more shorts and T-shirts. No more 7-on-7 workouts.
It's football season. The first official day of high school practice was Monday.
For York-Adams League schools, however, there's a wrinkle to the new season: Week Zero.
In March, the PIAA District 3 Committee voted to expand the playoffs in certain classifications, meaning the playoffs would begin in Week 10. The committee's decision forced schools to decide between a 10-game schedule, which includes only one scrimmage and a Week Zero game, or a nine-game schedule with two scrimmages and no Week Zero game.
Every school in the York-Adams League chose to play in Week Zero, which starts Friday, Aug. 24. For nearly all of the Y-A schools, playing in Week Zero will be a new experience.
One of those teams is Red Lion, which is coming off an 8-3 season and four straight District 3 playoff appearances.
Hurting young players: Head coach Jesse Shay, who is entering his sixth season at Red Lion, said the biggest complication with the change is it hurts the development of younger players.
"It's the young kids. That's who (the change) is going to impact," Shay said. "That's the biggest issue. Playing in Week Zero is whatever. But now that we're playing in Week Zero, we have only one scrimmage. That's going to take us as coaches some time to adjust to."
Shay said his typical preseason schedule is to get his younger players repetitions in the first scrimmage and then funnel down to the starters in the second scrimmage. Now with only one scrimmage, that formula isn't feasible.
"We play next Friday, and it counts," he said. "I have to get my guys ready. If that's going to take reps away from a sophomore, then so be it. That's unfortunate, but it's a byproduct of having only one scrimmage."
Senior halfback Elijah Workinger, who Shay said will see ample time in the backfield this season, said the change hasn't gone unnoticed by the players.
"It's definitely different," he said. "You have to get everything in quick and get everyone on the same page and get that team composition."
The other difficulty with playing in Week Zero, Shay said, is the game is typically against a nonleague foe, meaning there is less film for coaches to study. Red Lion opens its season at home against JP McCaskey.
"I'm going to try take from that one film what to tell my kids what we need to stop, and they're in the same boat," Shay said. "That's going to be an incredibly difficult task for coaching staffs."
Bad aftertaste: As the Red Lion looks to prepare for McCaskey, the Lions are motivated after the way last season ended.
Red Lion followed up a 10-1 Division I-title season in 2016, including an undefeated regular season, with a 7-0 start last year. The Lions were on a 21-game regular-season winning streak. The end of the season, however, left a bad taste in the mouths of many players.
Red Lion lost three of its final four games, losing out on a chance to win a second straight division title and falling in the first round of the District 3 playoffs for the fourth straight season.
"I feel like we could have won and should have won those games," Workinger said. "But we're looking to bring it back this year and not let that happen."
Shay said the team last season was returning only three of 22 starting positions, so the 7-0 start was "surprising." Still, he also said losing three of the team's final four games was disappointing.
"To end last season with a stretch like that, we're not used to that," Shay said. "We've worked very hard in the past to make sure we aren't accustomed to losing three out of four. To have that happen, that is a taste we want to get out of our mouth."
New QB: The Lions graduated 12 seniors last season, including running back Zach Crossland, wide receiver Denny Dennison and linebacker Jamel Foster, all of whom went to play in college at the NCAA Division III level.
No departure, however, is leaving bigger shoes to fill than Zach Throne.
Throne, who is now a freshman quarterback at Ursinus, ran for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last season in the Lions' run-pass-option offense. He also completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 1,350 yards and 17 touchdowns to only two interceptions.
Senior Zach Mentzer, who filled in for Throne when he was injured in the Lions' playoff loss to Wilson last year, is expected to start under center. Shay said Mentzer is a "cerebral" player, which is crucial for a signal caller in every offense, but especially an RPO system.
"He's more of a coach on the field," Shay said. "He's very good about knowing everybody's job, and especially in our offense, he's very good at seeing the reads."
As one of Mentzer's closest friends, and a teammate of his since the third grade, Workinger said the Mentzer's football IQ is his strength.
"He knows his stuff," Workinger said. "All he does is study and watch football. He knows all the reads he needs to make."
Shay said the departure of Crossland will mean more touches for Tyler Ness, who ran for 211 yards and three touchdowns last season, and Workinger, who is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 240 pounds and totaled 249 yards from scrimmage and scored three times a year ago.
"In our offense, (Elijah) is the guy we're using to seal the edge, and we also throw to him quite a bit," Shay said.
"I would definitely say I like contact more than avoiding it," Workinger said. "I like running inside and using my size more than my speed."
Reach Jacob Calvin Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.