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James Buchanan faces unique set of football challenges

Whether it be high school or junior high, boys or girls, football or basketball - for the last 18 years, Andy Stoner has had a hand in some sort of coaching.

He has seen it all.

Or so he thought. 

On Wednesday, Stoner's world was shaken up when James Buchanan's request to leave the Mid Penn Conference for football was accepted. 

"This is by far the most challenging thing I've ever done," Stoner said. "Typically, when I do things, because I work so hard at it, things usually get turned around. It just hasn't happened, and that's disappointing. But I'll be honest, with the way these guys have handled this year and treated one another, they've set the foundation for what I want future teams of JB to be." 

And the future is going to look much, much different.

The most immediate challenge facing James Buchanan is scheduling. PIAA teams are in the midst of a two-year cycle, so it's going to be difficult for the Rockets to make up a schedule of Pennsylvania teams only. They will keep their first three non-league opponents - Hanover, Fairfield and Camp Hill - to begin, but then will need to fill out the rest of the 10-week schedule.

"We're probably looking to go across the border (to Maryland)," JB athletic director Larry Strawoet said. "What I've found in some preliminary talks with schools is they're running into the same situation or plight as we have. We'll have some conversations starting tomorrow and into next week to get a schedule down." 

One of the biggest concerns, especially of the players, seems to be losing out on rivalry games, such as Greencastle-Antrim and Waynesboro. 

"Those were always big games," said former Rocket player Todd Stoner. "But at the same time, you always tried to have hope that when you played Greencastle, you'd have a chance, but we all knew we weren't at their level. We haven't beaten Greencastle since 1995. We probably are rivals still, especially in other sports, but it's hard to be a rival when you haven't beaten someone in 20 years."

Strawoet said, "While we're going to lose what some people deem as rivalries, I have some ideas, and hopefully we can start some new things." 

The challenge for Andy Stoner then becomes finding out about these new, currently unknown, opponents.

"The biggest difference I see is how will other teams get us film?" he said. "Will they give us film? Will we go into games being blindsided? In that regard, I'm a little uneasy about that because I like to have a plan." 

Moreover, moving to an independent schedule doesn't automatically bring more numbers to the team. Stoner has started a flag football league, which has been very successful, but there's still the problem of getting James Buchanan's best athletes to play football.

"That's a very good question that I'm not sure I totally have an answer for," Stoner said. "We have 53 guys at the high school (for flag football) on Saturday mornings, and our players are coaching these younger guys. That's been fantastic, so trying to identify kids at an earlier age will help. But getting the older kids out? I'm hoping some more wins each season will only help foster that." 

The good news, regardless of where the program is headed, is that the community continues to back Stoner and his squad.

"I've never seen a person who cares more about our kids than coach Stoner," said Shay Ellis, president of the JB booster club and football parent. "He teaches them so much on and off the field; he's building our children into men. Our kids stand out there with their heads held high, and that's a life lesson.

"There's a lot of things going against us, and until we get the chance to build the program back up, that's the only chance we have."