Sometimes a football team simply needs retooling, which is patching up positions suddenly devoid of proven ability. It amounts to minor tinkering.
Often, a more involved rebuilding process is necessary, such as when graduation takes a heavy toll.
Dave Needs has a different term for what he’s embarked upon in his first season as football coach at Red Lion Christian Academy.
“This is a reclamation project,” Needs said after leaving the practice field with his players, who number a little more than two dozen, after a preseason session.
The 66-year-old Needs is quite familiar with such endeavors.
He coached Mount Pleasant from 1979-86, guiding the Green Knights to the 1981 Division II state title, and later steered Caravel to a pair of Division II state tourney berths from 1995 through 2001.
Both times, he inherited programs that practically had nowhere to go but up, and promptly did just that under his leadership.
Red Lion, however, presents a unique challenge.
“This is a totally different experience for me because it doesn’t matter so much at this point about wins and losses,” Needs said, comparing Red Lion to what he encountered at Mount Pleasant and Caravel.
“This is reclamation. A hurricane came through, a tornado came through, you got nothing left. Now you’re doing an assessment. The walls in the basement are all torn out. What you have to do is put them all back in.”
A year ago, the school was beginning to live the dream of several former administrators and football parents by becoming a nationally competitive program.
Red Lion had succeeded in having its Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association football status changed to associate membership, thereby allowing it to circumvent DIAA rules limiting practice times and number of games and barring athletic scholarships. The Lions went 5-5 last fall while playing games in five states. They had no Delaware foes nor were permitted to play in the state tournament, which was fine with them.
In 2010, violations of some of those DIAA rules led to Red Lion removing itself from the state Division II tournament in which it would have been the top seed.
But Red Lion, a private preK-12 school, ran into financial trouble early in the 2011-12 school year, which partially resulted from those grand football visions and the negative fallout, school leaders said.
Early this year, the Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church, led by pastor Dr. Chuck F. Betters, purchased Red Lion and saw to it that the previous leadership was dismantled while returning football to a traditional small-school program that follows DIAA decree.
“I’m not really in a position to talk about what happened before because I wasn’t a part of it,” Needs said.
His decision to chart Red Lion’s new football course came down to one person.
“Pastor Betters,” he said. “If he hadn’t been in the game, I wouldn’t have been interested at all. When I heard he was stepping in, he’s such a solid guy, and his family, the way they run Glasgow church is such a solid enterprise, I thought, ‘OK, if they’re serious about hiring a new football coach, if they want to go in a different direction, because I am reclamation kind of guy.’ ”
Betters hired Needs, he said, because “he is of a like mind philosophically and theologically with us.”
Most former Red Lion players are now attending Elkton, Md.-based Eastern Christian Academy, which is affiliated with National Connections Academy, an accredited online school. Eastern Christian is playing a national schedule, and many of its players have already accepted college football scholarship offers.
Red Lion is basically back to where it was when it first started varsity football in 2004, when 30 kids came out for coach Dom Bonvetti, who is now offensive coordinator and school athletic director. The Lions won three games in their first four seasons.
“It’s definitely different, considering the talent we had before, and that we were ranked in the country,” said senior wide receiver/defensive back Ricky Emerson, one of the few returning Lions. “We’re starting over. I’m not biased against anybody. I’m giving the new coaches a chance. I just want to be a leader and give it my all so we can work our way back up to where we were.
“We’re the steppingstone for what’s going to come. The football program will grow again, and this small team we have will leave its mark.”
Emerson had considered joining some of his friends at Eastern Christian but felt a strong loyalty to Red Lion, which he has attended his whole life.
Ambitions have been carved down to the very basic now.
Red Lion has limited experience and depth and is especially short-handed on its offensive and defensive lines. The Lions run a triple-option offense patterned after Navy’s, so precision and execution may sometimes be more critical than size and speed.
“We’re going to have to rely on some eighth-graders,” said junior slotback/linebacker John Haney, “which you don’t usually want to do on a varsity team.”
“We might win less,” sophomore lineman K.J. Dorsey said, “but we have to try to just get better.”
Red Lion was able to put together a full 10-game schedule, with just four games against Delaware schools, as many either didn’t have available dates or were still skeptical of Red Lion’s intentions.
The season, and the transformation, begins Sept. 7 at home against Shenandoah Valley (Pa.).
“As a Christian, we’re really told to trust the Lord and take those challenges and not to walk away from things,” Needs said. “And this is a heck of a challenge. But we’re going to do the best we can.
“And we’ll have that new wall in before this year’s up,” he said, referring to his hurricane analogy, “and we’ll build right on top of it next year.”