'What happened to York High pride?'
Roughly 15 to 20 Bearcats — William Penn parents and alumni — stood in front of the York City School Board in late October and poured out their feelings toward the current state of the football program.
"It’s broken." "The kids are broken." "We failed them," they said.
Their beloved Bearcats were in the midst of a winless season, and enough was enough. They had questions.
How did the vaunted, York City-tough, former powerhouse William Penn football program lose its swagger?
How did the team that was feared by its league opponents less than a decade ago after winning a division title in 2007 turn into the team that was scheduled as a 2015 homecoming opponent by three teams — Red Lion, Spring Grove and Northeastern — that the Bearcats used to bully?
What happened to ‘The High?’
This group of alumni and former players wanted answers, as do many other parents and community members, they said.
“Athletics are supposed to create opportunities,” community member Dommonick Chatman said to the school board. “But what has been going on here has created disappointment. We’ve taken hope away from our kids. Who are they winning for? Who are they playing for? We failed them. And change is overdue.”
The school board nodded in unison as one person after another stepped up to the microphone.
“We’re Bearcats, too,” school board member Marshall Leonard said. “It hurts us.”
“I’m tired of it, too,” Supt. Eric Holmes added. “What happened to York High pride?”
Where's the Bearcat pride?
From 2004 to 2010, the Bearcats won at least five games every season, won a division title in 2007, won 20 combined games in 2007 and 2008, and won the first two district playoff games in program history.
The 2015 team finished with a minus-24 turnover ratio, lost by an average of 35 points per game, and totaled less than 1,500 yards all season on offense, which put them dead last in the league. It was the worst season since the Bearcats joined the league in 1981. The only other time the football program, which started in 1896, has ever gone 0-10 was in 1978. They were rarely competitive this season, with seven losses coming by 27 points or more. The closest the 2015 team came to a win was a 26-14 loss at New Oxford.
The tumultuous season, athletic director Joe Chiodi said, is simply a dip that any program faces on the roller coaster of high school athletics.
“We're having a down season because we have a lot of kids back who didn’t play much last season and don't have much experience,” Chiodi said. “You put those things together in a good league, and you won't have much success. It’s what happens to every high school. You have a run of outstanding athletes, and it runs in cycles. You’re eventually down on the cycle.”
And Chiodi has a strong case. The Bearcats returned just three starters from a 3-7 team and faced the sixth-toughest schedule among all Class AAAA teams in District 3. So the expectations weren’t very high coming into the 2015 campaign. But alumni and others didn't expect an 0-10 season.
“We’re concerned for the state of York High football,” said former player and assistant coach James Way II. “A lot of us played for championship teams here in the '80s, and the standard for York High football was set at that time. To see how far we’ve fallen, people don’t know how to take it.”
During a Week 9 game at New Oxford, Way said he counted six fans other than the Bearcats band on the William Penn side. And Small Field — once one of the toughest places for opposing teams to play — has been half-empty most of the season, he added.
“That’s something we’re not used to,” Way said. “We went undefeated twice in the '80s and used to pack the stadium. We had so many fans they had no room to sit. So to come in to York High and see us down by 40 and not have any fan support is tough. Everyone has given up on these kids, and that’s a big part of the collapse of York High football.”
David Kennedy, a William Penn graduate who is now a book author and motivational speaker, was asked to talk to the Bearcats locker room before a game earlier this season. He was blown away by what he saw, he told the school board.
“It starts at the top, and there needs to be a change,” Kennedy told the school board. “There needs to be a paradigm shift in athletics, in schools and in the city. There’s too much negative, and these kids don’t have the heart anymore. … Football used to keep this school going, but where’s the Bearcat pride?”
What needs to change?
Several former players, current players and alumni say that there is a clear disconnect between the coaching staff and players, and fixing that should be priority No. 1. Head coach Shawn Heinold was 17-44 in six seasons at the helm. As the losses piled up, Heinold faced more criticism.
There's a lack of respect, one parent said.
“I think it’s gotten to the point now where the players don’t even respect the coaches,” said Durvel Wilson, Sr. whose son Durvel Wilson, Jr. is a junior safety and quarterback, after a September meeting between parents and coaches at Small Field. “When the X's and O's don't work the kids get frustrated and lose respect and lose respect for their leader … Now the players are like, ‘We're losing, you're not helping us, we're not paying no mind.’”
And there is a lack of dedication, Way added.
"There were ample opportunities to get better," Heinold said. "That includes weight room training, tutoring, lineman clinics, speed training. The resources were there but, unfortunately, not enough kids took advantage of those resources."
The school board added that there’s blame to go around, and that includes the community.
Community support seems nonexistent. Small Field is rarely energetic. Parents vent their anger on social media. The school board challenged the parents and alumni at the meeting to channel that energy into building a booster club.
Talent doesn't seem to be the issue. The feeder programs like the York Bears, founded by Erik Mann, have had some success. For example, this senior class had seven wins as a junior varsity squad two years ago. Talent isn't an issue, Mann told the school board, because there's no shortage of talent in the district.
There was a numbers issues this season, though, senior quarterback Justin Colston said.
"This season we didn't have that many substitutions in games, this year was a pretty small team," he said. "But we fought hard through every game. It's not about winning or losing, it's about playing with the Bearcat pride from August until November."
Colston added that the Bearcats heard plenty of negative comments from outside the locker room.
"People were saying, 'Don't waste your talent playing for York High, nobody is going to football games,'" he said of the criticism. "We had some players quit to play basketball and some players quit because they hated losing and it was an embarrassment ... but in the end most of us stuck together and played our hearts out."
Beyond the football program, the school system itself had its fair share of turmoil in recent years after teacher layoffs and numerous students transferring to charter schools. At an event in early November, Holmes said roughly 2,000 kids live in the city but attend either charter schools or the York County School of Technology. It's a bleeding school district, and because of that, the football program suffers, too.
“Right now, the school district is having its own issues, and that’s trickling down and affecting other things,” Wilson said at the September meeting. “The school district’s top priority right now is not football.”
Has that had an effect on the athletic program? Former head coach Matt Ortega, who went 37-18 at the helm and won two district playoff games, thinks so.
“I know Shawn (Heinold), he coached with me, and I feel like he has been stripped of the resources such as coaches in the building,” Ortega said of the coaching challenges following layoffs in the district. “If the school itself isn’t doing well, how can anyone build a strong program? You have to have coaches in the schools building relationships with the players and you have to have support from parents and the community. If you don’t, I don’t care where you are or who you are, you’re not going to be successful.”
Athletics and academics go hand in hand, Ortega added. Having coaches in the school teaching the players, building trust, being leaders and being there for the athletes after school or in the weight room is crucial. Ortega had that, he said, which is what helped make his tenure successful on and off the field. Roughly 30 who played for Ortega, including Knowledge Timmons (Penn State), Greg Gaskins (Pitt), Richard Muldrow (Rutgers) and Malik Generett (UConn) went on to play college football.
“It’s bigger than football,” Way said. “It’s not about wins and losses. Even if we don’t win a game, if we put 10 kids in college, that’s a success. But do we have that right now?”
Before meeting with coaches and players in September and before meeting with the school board in October, some parents and alumni feared the program itself could be in trouble of disintegrating, Way said, which he said would be tragic for the school district and city.
But with the offseason here, and with a better line of communication now with the school board, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel, he added.
“We met with them a second time, and I feel like it’s going in the right direction,” he said. “It feels like they’re at least trying to get it going in the right direction. There are some positives.”
And as Way and his fellow Bearcats stood in front of the school board pleading for change, the board’s response was simple: stay patient.
“It’s about more than competing, it’s about self-worth,” Leonard said. “It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take dedicated people.”
Then school board president Margie Orr spoke directly to the crowd.
“This board is not immune to what is going on,” she said. “You will see some changes.”
The first change came just days after the regular season finale. William Penn opened the head coaching position as it does after every sports season, and Heinold informed Chiodi that he probably would not re-apply.
Chiodi added that he would like to have a new coach in place by Jan. 1. Based on last season's results and feedback from parents, alumni and players, that coach will have a long to-do list: Connect with students. Convince some not to leave the district. Build structure. Restore confidence. And try to bring back Bearcat pride.