Can move to Section 3 revive Lebanon football?
By total male enrollment, Lebanon High is one of the biggest football-playing schools in the Lancaster-Lebanon League, and on the surface one capable of competing against any other school in the league simply because of the sheer size of the talent pool it can draw from.
But it's annual roster numbers - particularly those that are calculated at the end of the season - tell a different story, one of a struggling program more suited to competing against much smaller schools.
And so it shall be, beginning in 2018.
At the request of Lebanon High athletic director Sam Elias, the Cedars will move from the L-L's biggest section, Section 1, to its smallest, Section 3, beginning with the 2018-19 school year. Lebanon's desire to move was approved by the L-L last week as part of a vote on its next two-year realignment cycle.
The Cedars will be joined by fellow struggling program Ephrata, moving from Section 2, and L-L newcomer Octorara to create a 10-team Section 3. Section One and Two will each have 7 teams.
Lebanon's move comes in, Elias's eyes, not a moment too soon, given that the Cedars' enrollment numbers forced them up into Section 1 last season and have given them one more season to be overmatched against the likes of Wilson, Manheim Township and Hempfield, etc.
"We start the season out every year with 40-plus players and finish, for whatever reason, under 30," Elias said in a phone interview on Monday. "Looking at the history, I felt this was the time to get our program back to where I think it should be. In order to get healthy, we need to be playing programs that are of similar size for what we have on our team, not for what we have in enrollment.
"The previous realignment put us in Section 1. I told them at the time because of the history of our numbers and where our program was this was gonna damage the program tremendously. Fast forward to this past season, we were able to be competitive the first two quarters and then the depth took over. We had some disastrous second halfs."
Indeed, the Cedars went just 1-9 last season, with the only victory coming, ironically, against winless Ephrata. In the last three seasons, Lebanon is just 6-24 overall and 1-20 in section play.
When the previous realignment cycle came up, Elias attempted to use the league's Hornberger Amendment, which allows schools to stay in their same section if they can find another school willing to take their spot, to remain in Section 2 but found no takers.
But for the latest cycle, schools were allowed to appeal if they couldn't find another willing to enact the Hornberger Amendment with them. That led to Annville-Cleona athletic director and L-L football chairman Tommy Long coming up with the idea for a 10-team Section 3 that would allow Lebanon to move down.
"Nobody in Section 2 or 3 was willing to come up to Section 1," Elias said. "Through the next process, if nobody would switch you with the Hornberger, you were able to appeal. So I put together a background of our history with record, section record, and participation history and I think that clearly showed that even though our enrollment was for Section 1, our history showed that we probably should have been in Section 3.
"So we went through that process, and fortunately Tommy Long was thinking outside the box and created three sections where he was able to put Ephrata and Lebanon in Section 3."
Elias also noted that head coach Gerry Yonchiuk and his staff have responded positively to the impending move.
"It's been a breath of fresh air," he said. " We had some staff members that were questioning themselves. The thing that's frustrating, as a former football coach, is there is always criticism of the coaches. I have a lot of admiration for our coaching staff and Gerry. They have worked extremely hard and they're very good coaches. If they had a different type of environment, things would be different."
The recent past hasn't been all doom and gloom. The Cedars made district playoff appearances in 2013 and 2008, but did so largely on the backs of the prolific play of then star quarterbacks Mark Pyles and James Capello, who led small rosters to overachieve with their stellar play.
That isolated success wasn't enough for Elias to risk the long-term health of the program. But he also says that the Cedars will be happy to move back up if they can rebuild the program in Section 3.
"A lot of our problem is our kids have other responsibilities," Elias noted. "We're a large enrollment school, but we're not a large enrollment athletic program. We're not looking to win championships (in Section 3), we're just looking to be competitive and to have our kids feel that all the work they put in during the week pays off on Friday night."
The new section alignments will look like this: Section 1 - Wilson, Manheim Township, Hempfield, McCaskey, Penn Manor, Warwick, and Cedar Crest, which will move back up after a two-year stint in Section 2. Section 2 - Manheim Central, Cocalico, Garden Spot, Conestoga Valley, Solanco, Elizabethtown and Lampeter-Strasburg. Section 3 - Lebanon, Ephrata, Annville-Cleona, Elco, Northern Lebanon, Lancaster Catholic, Donegal, Columbia, Pequea Valley and Octorara.
Section 1 and 2 teams will play one crossover game with each other and three non-league games. Section 3 will play just one non-league game with nine league contests now on the docket. Lebanon's non-league opponent will be Cedar Crest, keeping the annual Cedar Bowl season opener alive.
"We think we can be .500," Elias concluded, of moving to Section 3. "I really think we'll see the numbers shoot up. They were dropping because of who we were gonna play. We're hoping this move will enhance our numbers and create some spirit in the school."