No way around it: New Northern Lebanon head boys’ basketball coach Chris George knew what he was stepping into when he accepted the position last May.
Long-time head coach Gary Bouchette was fired in February, later offered his job back later with “no strings attached”, only to see Bouchette reject all offers. School board president David Hauck, critical of Bouchette, resigned his post in April as a result of the furor.
Into the cauldron steps George, a 1993 graduate of Lebanon Catholic who later played football at Lebanon Valley College. George had been the girls’ varsity head coach at Pine Grove the past five seasons and led the Cardinals to two District 11 titles.
Northern Lebanon’s new head man holds the old one in high esteem, having coached against Bouchette while an assistant at Elco. The 40-year old George, a Myerstown native, considers the area home and is tasked with recharging a program rocked since the end of last season.
“We’re really hopeful for this season,” George said. “The kids have been working really hard. It’s been a transition for the kids, obviously, the older kids. Every coach has their own way of doing things, so there’s been change for them, and they’re dealing with it really well. It’s a credit to them.
“Coach Bouchette did a great job here. Worked his tail off. Did so much for this program. At the end of the day we may do things differently. ... We addressed it. It’s not something that we’ve tried to run and hide from. In life, there’s change. And it’s a good life lesson for kids. You get out in the working world, you may get a new job, you may get a new boss. Things change there, too. No matter what, you do the best you can.
“I spoke to Gary before I came here. He’s been very helpful. I respected the job he did, and we got along very well (when George was an Elco assistant). So I knew him from that.”
As far as on the court, George takes over a program that sputtered to 7-15 last season following two straight District Three playoffs berths in 2013 and ‘14. In addition, the Vikings lost leading and 1,000-point scorer Isaac Ray to graduation. He’ll bring some new wrinkles with him down from Pine Grove.
“We’re probably going to be a little more up-tempo,” George said. “We’re a little deeper this year. When I spoke to Gary, he said, ‘You’re going to have a few more kids to work with’. We’re a bit more athletic, and we’re going to try to take advantage of that.”
The Vikings return three starters from a year ago in swing Isaac Bicher, guard Noah Gingrich and center Shane Reese. The team will also get William Fellows back from injury, who missed the majority of last season. All four are seniors.
“Isaac is our big rebounder, leading returning scorer, grabs a lot of rebounds. We have high hopes for him,” George said. “Shane kind of anchors our defense, does a lot of the little things. Noah does everything. Plays great defense, shares the ball, plays great team ball. We really like him.”
Bicher is looking forward to running a transition pace. “We have the foot speed to do it right now,” he said. “We’re athletic, and we can do it. I’d like to see us play good defense, get steals and run it right away.”
Reese, who will plant as a traditional back-to-the-basket center when in the half court, is also looking forward to getting out and pushing the ball.
“Coach George is more an up-tempo type of guy,” Reese said. “So we’ll play quick off the ball. And definitely a lot more energy out on the court this year.”
NORTHERN LEBANON BOYS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Chris George (first season)
Last year: 7-15 overall, 3-13 L-L Section Three
Returning starters: Noah Gingrich (Sr. G), Shane Reese (Sr., C), Isaac Bicher (Sr., F), William Fellows (Sr., F)
Season opener: Dec. 4 vs. Middletown, at Annville-Cleona tournament