York, PA - Reality hit Tony Jones during a practice this past week, as William Penn's longtime track and field coach led his team through a workout. Out of the blue, one of Jones' athletes posed the question: "What are you going to do after they lose this sport?"
Jones played dumb, like he didn't understand what was being asked.
"What are you going to do after this?" the student said again. "You going to find another school?"
Jones, who has invested some three decades in William Penn athletics as an athlete and coach, thought for a moment. He didn't know how to answer.
"Since you said it like that," Jones recalled answering, "I don't know."
Such has been the feeling this week for the members of the Bearcats' athletic community -- a mixture of disappointment, disbelief and denial.
They don't want to believe that William Penn sports could cease to exist, part of the $19 million worth of cuts laid out last week in the York City School District's latest budget proposal.
They don't want to believe that more than a century of athletic history could end, left to rust over in the minds of fans and alumni.
They don't want to believe their school district could earn an unfortunate distinction as the first major public district in Pennsylvania to completely cancel its sports programs.
But all of that could come to fruition if the board's latest budget proposal -- which eliminates all extracurricular activities, including music, the arts and sports -- is eventually approved.
"If people sit for this, I hate to see it," said Keenan Preston, the former Bearcat basketball player who later coached the program for 12 seasons. "I hate even speaking on it, even mentioning that the possibility of this could exist."
"I sort of brushed it aside at first, because how dare people think they could get away with this?"
During the past week, news of the proposed cuts fanned out to William Penn's vast network of alumni.
In Mansfield, Jason Roscoe tried to wrap his mind around the predicament. Roscoe was once a three-sport star with the Bearcats. He later played football and basketball at Mansfield University.
Roscoe, 31, now holds a tenure-track position at the college, serving as an academic advisor and the school's Coordinator of Minority Mentoring.
"This is something that has accrued obviously over an extended period of time," Roscoe said. "I think part of it has to do with people who are in leadership roles who don't necessarily have the best interests of the students in mind."
Roscoe cited athletics as a stabilizing force in his life, something that kept him on a pathway to college.
"I currently have a younger brother who's serving a 10-year federal prison term," Roscoe said. "I've had different family members who have been in and out of the prison system. So, growing up, I did use athletics as my outlet. I thought 'Man, if I do what they're doing, I'm not going to be able to pursue a dream I had.'"
Elsewhere, the response was similar.
Woody Bennett was blindsided by the news. Bennett was a football standout at William Penn before his graduation in 1974. He went on to play 10 seasons as a fullback in a NFL and appeared in two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. He's now a pastor in southern Florida.
"As I look back at it, people like Chris Doleman, Brad Carr, so many of us," Bennett said, referring to two more William Penn football alumni. "That was really such a major part of our lives back then. It meant so much to us. It kept us focused, and probably for the most part kept us in school. Probably for a lot of kids today, that's their lifeline."
Added Preston: "To me, sports have always saved lives and changed lives."
Of course, the glory days of Bennett and Doleman have passed. Declining budgets and volatile participation rates have taken their toll on some of the school's sports programs.
Still, Jones fears that without extracurricular activities, William Penn's connective tissue -- its sense of community -- will erode.
"I'm in a position now as a coach, I can pass along the history of York High," Jones said. "If you lose stuff like that, later on in life you have no connection with the high school. That's what you're losing."
What will happen to those punished most by the potential cuts?
If sports are eliminated, what options will William Penn's current student-athletes have?
The PIAA recently revised its transfer rules to better deal with schools that cancel sports for budgetary reasons. Athletes at such schools can transfer free of penalty under certain provisions.
--- The student must have been a member of the team being cut (or a member of the school's feeder program) within one year of filing the transfer request.
--- If the student chooses to transfer to a public school, he/she may only attend a school in a bordering district. In this case, William Penn students would be able to transfer to West York, Central York or York Suburban, in addition to private or charter schools (York Catholic, New Hope Academy) and vocational schools (York County Tech).
--- However, none of those schools would be required to accept a student's transfer request.
All of this would leave many William Penn athletes in limbo, with extremely tough decisions to make.
Anderson Novalin, a junior member of the Bearcats' football and track teams, would be one such case. Novalin, a standout lineman, said he has received recruiting interest from several college football programs, including some Ivy League schools.
"That's my way to go to college," said Novalin, who moved to the United States from Haiti when he was 12. "If I don't have sports and I can't play for anybody else (next year), I might not go to college. I'm in shock right now."
"The only other option is really to change schools," added Cheyanne Brown, a sophomore sprinter on the Bearcats' girls' track team. "If we want to keep playing sports and they're not going to let us have it, then we have to go somewhere else."
The York City School Board does not have to approve a new budget until the end of June. But, already, several of the school's athletic teams have started to plan ahead in case the worst happens.
"We're prepared to go out and fund-raise if we have to," William Penn varsity football coach Shawn Heinold said.
Heinold said his staff has already discussed fund-raising possibilities with members of the Block and Tackle Express program (BT Express), which provides after-school tutoring, college tours and scholarships to York City School District students.
One of BT Express' co-founders, Kerry Kirkland, said this week that he understands the school board's proposal -- "The priority is taking care of education," Kirkland said -- but that his organization had started to explore ideas to possibly help support the school's extracurricular programs.
"This is a momentous problem, and it's going to require quite a few people from the business and community and everywhere else to try to look at ways at overcoming it," Kirkland said. "It's going to require an awful lot of resources."
How many resources? It's impossible to know that answer, or if it's even feasible to support an entire athletic program through donations and outside support.
For some of William Penn's sports programs, the outlook is bleaker than others. The Bearcats' baseball program was among those in line to be cut even before the district's latest proposed cuts. William Penn baseball coach Andy Zayas said he first heard of the program's fate before a game early this season.
"I just couldn't believe it," Zayas said. "I kept it to myself. But apparently (his players) must have found out through somebody."
Zayas said he plans to appeal to local businesses and organizations for help keeping the program going. He even met with York Mayor Kim Bracey two weeks ago to voice his concern.
For now, Zayas will try to stay optimistic. He, too, doesn't want to believe that a most unthinkable of scenarios could actually unfold.
"For a large school like William Penn to not have nothing?" Zayas said. "It's absurd. It's unheard of."