Russ Stoner remembers what it used to be like for an opposing player to play against William Penn on the Bearcats' home field.
He remembers the raucous crowds “hooting and hollering,” the size of the school band, and the stadium being filled to capacity. Now as he prepares for his first season as William Penn's head football coach, Stoner is trying to recapture that atmosphere and re-energize a program that has seen better days.
And he's getting started right away, planning a first practice on Monday that the players aren't likely to forget. Organized through Facebook, and with the help of the city community, Stoner plans to have a crowd full of fans waiting for the players when they exit the locker room for the first practice of the 2016 season.
“My goal is when we walk out of the locker room there’s a tunnel full of people that our kids are going to walk through out onto the practice field,” Stoner said. “My goal is to have us go through our workout, whoever wants to stay and watch can stay and watch. We’ll have some music being played throughout the stadium like we always do during practice. They can just see what the kids have been doing. See how hard they work and see what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The night will serve as a celebration of sorts for the start of a new chapter in William Penn football. It will also be a way for the players to see that the community is still behind them despite the events of last season, Stoner said.
The Bearcats went 0-10 last year for the first time since 1978, which led to plenty of empty seats at Small Field. Parents and alumni addressed the school board about their concerns. And when the head coaching position was opened for applicants after the season, sixth-hear head coach Shawn Heinold said he probably would not reapply, GameTimePA reported in November.
Stoner saw it unfold firsthand. After 20 years coaching at Central York and Spring Grove, he took off the 2015 season. He watched nearly every William Penn football game, calling it “heart wrenching," and was hired to replace Heinold in March.
Now, he's ready to move on.
“My idea was on Monday to have our stadium filled so the kids understand that no one cares what’s happened in the past,” Stoner said. “And then also I want the community of York High to understand it’s not about wins and losses all the time. It’s about the preparation and dedication, and the ability to hold kids accountable.”
Stoner said he hopes the increased support from the community will have a ripple effect on the players, who will see people invested in their success and in turn feel responsible to work hard for the community.
The idea is part of a larger cultural change that is taking place, not only within the football team, but the athletics program as a whole at William Penn. Under the direction of athletic director Ron Coursey, the school is putting an emphasis on seeing its student-athletes succeed on and off the field, and on holding the players accountable.
“That means making sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing in the classroom,” Coursey said of the athletes’ responsibilities. “Making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing behaviorally and making sure we’re just good citizens in the community. So I think when you can sell that package to your community, to stakeholders, and anybody who is a York High alum or just has a passion for York High athletics will just be able to rally around that.”
Stoner said he already sees the culture change within the football team. The players are already starting to buy into what Coursey and Stoner are preaching, and they understand that grades and academics will be as important as the results on the gridiron.
“It’s awesome as an adult to watch a bunch of young guys start to figure it out. That’s what they’re doing,” Stoner said.
And there will be plenty of time to focus on the academics with Coursey instituting a new mandatory study hall after school for athletes. The program will eliminate excuses for athletes to not do their homework, projects, or study for tests at home, and teachers will be available to tutor anyone who needs help, Coursey said.
The student-athletes will also be fed dinner during the study hall.
However, because of the York City School District's financial constraints, it has taken a community effort.
Principal Brandon Carter has been a big supporter for the athletic department’s new approach, Coursey said, and has made several teachers available to help tutor student-athletes after school. And because the team doesn't have a booster club, it relies on the community to help foster support.
So when Stoner was putting together his grand scheme for practice, it was the York city community that stepped up. Businesses and community members will provide dinner for the football team for the first two weeks of practice.
“People are actually coming to the stadium with prepared meals,” Stoner said. “It’s been tremendous. I couldn’t be happier for the kids, I can’t be happier for the community, and I’m hoping we can re-light this thing and say, ‘You know what? There’s pride in the city of York and there’s pride in York High football, and more importantly there’s pride in York City School District.’”