Everyone involved with the football program at Red Lion Christian Academy knew that returning to varsity competition for the first time in three years wasn’t going to be easy.
But a 67-0 loss at Milford in the season opener was an eye opener. And some of those eyes were already pretty open.
“We kind of imploded early in the game,” Red Lion Christian coach Chris Schleich said. “A lot of them, their eyes were 10 feet wide when they walked out on the field. It was their first varsity game.
“Milford was a lot bigger than us. We struggled early in the game, then the kids kind of shut down.”
But the Lions righted the ship almost immediately, grinding out a 7-0 victory over St. Andrew’s the following week. They are 1-6 now, but this ragtag bunch with little to no experience is surviving. They are having fun and learning a sport few of them had played before.
They are bringing football back to Red Lion Christian Academy.
The school began playing football in 2004, winning only three games over its first four seasons. Then came a rapid turnaround, from 1-9 in 2007 to 8-1 in 2008.
The Lions made their first appearance in the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association Division II playoffs in 2009, losing in the first round. Then the expectations – and the expenditures – skyrocketed.
The school began attracting football players from a wide area, providing housing and scholarships in some cases. Many of the actions were at odds with DIAA rules, and in July 2011 the state’s governing body of middle and high school athletics grudgingly allowed Red Lion to change its status to associate member and granted the school unprecedented permission to recruit student-athletes and award athletic scholarships.
The Lions began playing opponents from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida and Ohio, often traveling great distances to do so. Then, in November 2011, it all unraveled.
The school was nearly $6 million in debt when it was acquired by Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church. One of the new management’s first changes was to terminate the entire football coaching staff.
Red Lion’s new leaders apologized to the DIAA board of directors and asked to be reinstated to full DIAA membership, which was granted for the 2012-13 school year. The Lions played a more localized football schedule that season, then dropped the varsity program at the end of the year.
But Red Lion officials quickly found something was missing. Football – the thing that once threatened to tear the school apart – could help with the continuing rebuilding process.
The sport never totally disappeared. The Lions played four junior varsity games in 2013, but hoped to get a varsity team going full-time again in 2014. So athletic director Domenic Bonvetti interviewed Schleich, a special education teacher at Appoquinimink High School who had coached football for 12 years in northeastern Ohio and served as an assistant at Appo for two years.
“He gave me a list of six kids,” Schleich said. “He said, ‘These are our six kids that signed up to play football. We’re going to cancel the program. What can you do with it?’ I said, ‘Give me a shot.’”
Schleich’s first step was to hire Brian Reph as assistant head coach. Then they started to search for athletes.
“I talked to basketball players, walked around the campus at softball games and other events,” Schleich said. “I talked to baseball players, just kept getting to know kids.”
The Lions committed to a full junior varsity schedule last year. They had only 12 players at the first practice, but were eventually able to boost the roster to 18.
“We were scared,” Schleich said. “As coaches, our thoughts were, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I went home and talked to my wife and said, ‘Honey, I think I’m crazy. I’m really kind of worried about this.’”
But Red Lion Christian did unexpectedly well. The Lions’ schedule was dotted with small schools, where the dropoff from varsity to junior varsity can be significant. Red Lion Christian gained confidence while putting together a 7-3 record.
“We had a fun year,” Schleich said. “The kids really bought into what we were doing. They liked being a part of the program. They were excited, and that carried over into this year.”
Whole new ballgame
But Schleich knew this year was going to be a big jump. Going against the other schools’ best athletes was going to be an entirely different level of competition, and he increased the pace of practice to get his team ready.
“We pushed the tone and the tempo right off the bat, from the first second of the first day,” Schleich said. “Longer practice hours, practicing at a sufficient speed so you practice like you play a game.
“The first couple of days, the kids were sluggish with it. But then we saw a change. The kids started to pick up their speed. They were quicker to think, quicker to move.”
Still, the Lions had a long way to go. They were up to 22 players, but only 12 of them returned from last season. Of the 10 newcomers, only two had ever played football before.
Senior Johnathan Greenwell, a two-way lineman and one of the team’s biggest players at just more than 200 pounds, struggled with the learning curve.
“The hardest thing for me was to learn the steps, because I’m a lineman,” Greenwell said. “I had to get used to the steps and how to block.”
The key: Keep it simple. Schleich spent four years as a middle school coach in Ohio, experience that helped him remember how to emphasize the basics.
“Just teaching kids some simple things, like a post route or flag route, was difficult,” the coach said. “Block out versus block down. We catch ourselves in practice a lot of times saying football terms, and then realizing the kid doesn’t understand what we just said.”
Daniel McNeil, a junior wide receiver-defensive back, has attended Red Lion Christian since the third grade. He started playing football in the sixth grade, and was sad to see the school’s program disband.
“It was tough when it stopped, because you didn’t have anything to look forward to during the fall,” McNeil said. “You were used to coming straight out after school and going to practice. But after they took football, you just went home and it got kind of boring.”
He was excited to see the sport return.
“We had good students who were ready to come out and work, and that was the biggest thing,” McNeil said. “Even though they weren’t the best athletes, they were really ready to work.”
The first ‘W’
The team’s resolve was tested in the disastrous season opener at Milford. But Schleich thought the Lions were simply overmatched and overwhelmed by maybe the best opponent they would see all season.
He thought his team would bounce back, and he was right. On Sept. 18 – the Lions’ first varsity home game since Nov. 9, 2012 – Red Lion Christian edged St. Andrew’s 7-0. Jean Marc Wampler scored on a 7-yard run in the third quarter, and his brother, Seth Wampler, kicked the extra point.
“I knew they had something more inside of them. They came out and played their butts off against St. Andrew’s,” Schleich said. “I know it’s not the highest level of football in this state, but for us that night, we won on effort.
“It was a great night for the campus. It was a great night for us to bring football back to Red Lion. We had a great crowd, and it was exciting. It gave our kids hope and showed them they belong.”
It hasn’t been as easy since. But the Lions have games remaining against St. Elizabeth, Seaford and Charter of Wilmington, and they hope to finish strong as they lay the foundation for the future.
“It was definitely something that a lot of us wanted to play,” said Seth Wampler, a senior quarterback-defensive back. “When coach Schleich came in, we saw his enthusiasm and his love for the game, and it got us really excited for what was to come.”
Football’s lessons can be harsh, but the players who have persevered wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned was how to be tough, how to grow as a man,” said Darin Kellam, a senior receiver-defensive back. “I was used to basketball, and it made me tougher. And we built a lot of camaraderie.”
The coach believes brighter days are ahead for Red Lion Christian football. But he is proud of this team, and will always remember the group of inexperienced athletes who bonded to bring football back.
“We have a lot of younger kids growing in the middle school program, and our freshmen and sophomores,” Schleich said. “In a year or two, we’re going to be OK. But these kids were willing to be unselfish to come out and play this year.
“Regardless of what obstacles we’re going to run across, we’re committed to it. It’s working out.”
Contact Brad Myers at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ
RED LION CHRISTIAN ACADEMY FOOTBALL TIMELINE
2004: Red Lion Christian Academy begins playing varsity football. The school wins a total of three games in its first four seasons.
2008: Football team improves from 1-9 the previous year to 8-1.
2009: With eight Delaware opponents on its regular-season schedule, RLCA finishes 8-3 and earns its first DIAA Division II playoff berth, falling to Pencader Charter 31-21 in the first round.
FEBRUARY 2010: RLCA receives national attention when 13-year-old quarterback David Sills V makes a verbal commitment to play football at the University of Southern California in five years.
MARCH 2010: The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association sends a letter to RLCA officials saying the school is being investigated for a dozen “concerns,” including recruiting students for athletic purposes; providing scholarship money and housing for players at Red Lion, a private school with annual tuition exceeding $7,000; practicing out of season; playing too many middle school football games in a season and in a week; and using ineligible players.
NOVEMBER 2010: With only two Delaware schools on its schedule, RLCA finishes a 7-3 season. The Lions play opponents from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Virginia.
JULY 2011: DIAA agrees to change RLCA’s status to associate member and grants the school unprecedented permission to recruit student-athletes and award athletic scholarships.
NOVEMBER 2011: With no Delaware opponents on its schedule, RLCA finishes a 5-5 season. The Lions play only two games at their on-campus stadium, travel to Ohio for three games and also play in Maryland, New Jersey and Florida. … With the 30-year-old school nearly $6 million in debt – in part due to falling enrollment, the recession and controversy over its athletic pursuits – members of Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church vote to support the acquisition of Red Lion Christian Academy.
DECEMBER 2011: GRPC assumes management of the school and fires the entire football coaching staff. “It quickly became apparent that the football program was not aligned where we wanted to go,” said Dr. Chuck L. Betters, associate pastor at GRPC and part of the new management team at Red Lion. “And so there has been kind of a parting of the ways as it pertains to the old football regime.” David Needs is named the school’s new coach.
2012: Many of the former RLCA football players enroll at Eastern Christian Academy, a new “cyberschool” in Elkton, Maryland, which starts a football team led by former RLCA coaches.
JANUARY 2012: RLCA officials apologize to the DIAA’s board of directors and the state’s athletic directors and ask to be reinstated to full DIAA membership.
FEBRUARY 2012: The DIAA board votes to reinstate RLCA as a full member, effective at the start of the 2012-13 school year.
NOVEMBER 2012: Four Delaware opponents return to the schedule as RLCA finishes a 4-6 season. The school drops varsity football before the 2013 season.
SEPTEMBER 2015: RLCA resumes varsity football competition.