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May 19, 2011

Red Lion still aims to be national power

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Tom Bergeron is the Senior Editor for RivalsHigh.com. Send ideas, questions or comments to TBergero@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow on Twitter.

It was banned from the postseason and admitted to violations last season.

It lost the head coach who set the foundation and framework for turning the program into a national power last week.

Then it was delivered what it hopes is only a temporary setback with its state association when its membership change request was tabled until the summer.

But if you think Bear (Del.) Red Lion Christian Academy is thinking about changing its plans, think again.

Athletic director Ken Howard said the school is still on course to become a top-flight high school football program.

And he assures anyone who asks: Stunningly talented rising freshman quarterback David Sills will be the one leading the way. His commitment, Howard said, hasn't changed.

"The ultimate goal still is to build a program that will be respected nationally," Howard said.

The questions are: When will that day come? And how good can a school in Delaware really become?

*****

Right now, Red Lion is a program that just gets national attention. But not necessarily for its wins and losses.

It started with Sills, the wunderkid quarterback who made headlines when he verbally committed to Southern Cal when he was in the 7th grade.

It resurfaced last season when the school admitted to violations regarding excessive practices and failure to properly monitor its program and was banned from the playoffs from the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.

When the school's request to become an associate member of the DIAA - and thus not be bound by as many regulations - was tabled by the association and Day resigned, many outsiders felt the program was crumbling.

Howard, with assistant coach Duane Thomas now in charge, said that's not the case.

"That's a fair observation," Howard said.

It's just one, he said, is not true.

Day, at the time of resignation, said he was leaving to refocus his life - "It's my responsibility, not as a football coach but as a Christian, to place all my thoughts toward Christ," he said.

Howard said Day's departure was not unexpected and that Day will still help - and is still committed - to building it. Howard also feels the program is in good hands.

"I believe there's enough people in place that we're not going to miss a beat moving forward," he said. "Eric had surrounded himself with some very, very good coaches. And those coaches are still in place to continue to build the program."

Rivals.com national football analyst Mike Farrell agrees.

"The hiring of Dwayne Thomas, the defensive coordinator, as new head coach is a good move because almost all of the kids on the team are very loyal to Thomas," he said. "Thomas is the guy who takes all the kids around to camps and on visits and he is very well respected by college coaches.

"Having seen many of their top players interact at the recent NIKE Camp at Rutgers, I can see how close the kids and coach Thomas are and I think they will stay loyal to the program. I even asked David Sills if he thought about heading to the west coast to work more closely with quarterback guru Steve Clarkson and he said he was sticking with Red Lion and he loves his teammates."

Howard echoed the thoughts on Sills.

"I will tell you that his dad and mother are very committed to this school and have been for many, many years."

*****

Red Lion is at a bit of a crossroads.

First there's the issue with the state association. The school would like to become an associate member in both football and boys basketball - thus allowing the football program to operate year-round and without practice restrictions.

Howard said the association is simply gathering its facts. It could rule that the school must stay as a full member in all sports, give it the split it wants or require Red Lion to be all-in or all-out.

The other schools in Delaware already have offered their opinion. Howard said the school was unable to secure an in-state game for the coming season.

"It has moved to a point where we are filling our schedule completely with non-Delaware schools," Howard said. "Not that we haven't tried to play some Delaware schools, but because of where we are (as a program), they have chosen not to put us on our schedule."

Because of that, Howard said the school is ready to hear any decision from the DIAA - but he said it is not ready financially to go on its own in all sports.

"That (going solo) could be the ultimate end, but right now our desire is to not go that route," he said. "We want to try to make this work where they relax it for a couple of sports, and then when our other sports are ready, then we would pull them out."

Of course on the national level, the football program is how the school will be measured.

It's clear the school can produce players: Two of its three seniors last season signed D1 scholarships - including Angelo Blackson, who signed with Auburn. But next fall's team will be loaded with freshmen and sophomores.

"I am beyond impressed with the talent level at Red Lion Christian," Farrell said. "They came out of nowhere a couple of years ago when Angelo Blackson emerged and was recruited heavily and ended up at Auburn. Now they have legit D-1 prospects in every class and some high-level prospects like Kenny Bigelow, Khahliel Rodgers and David Sills in their underclass."

Farrell is particularly impressed with Sills and Bigelow.

"Sills impressed me and he is growing like a weed," he said. "When I saw him at Rutgers on May 1 he looks much taller and more filled out than in February and I think he has a chance to be special. But Bigelow is the first true freak out of that school, he is a monster."

*****

Its success on the field against national powers ultimately will determine Red Lion's success as a program.

Next year it will play solid (though not spectacular) teams from a number of states, including always-tough Ohio and Florida. The team just may not quite be ready.

Even Howard admits, "We may have bitten off more than we can chew."

Farrell questions whether the school can reach the heights it wants and be a potential Top 20 program such as the ones that exist in nearby New Jersey and Maryland.

"I don't think it's possible for a team to reach a Don Bosco/Good Counsel/DeMatha level in the state of Delaware because there just isn't enough talent in the state to put out teams like that year in and year out," Farrell said.

Dallas Jackson, who oversees the RivalsHigh Top 100 rankings, has never had a Delaware school ranked in the four years he has overseen them. He's mixed on how good the program can be.

"It is a tough sell, certainly," Jackson said. "But automatically dismissing a team or program based on where they are from is not fair. The top-flight talent is there and if Red Lion can surround it with a cast of good high school football players that are well coached and can win some out of state games, there is no reason why it cannot reach national success levels."

Tempering those expectations, Jackson said, is the key.

"Will it be the next Euless (Texas) Trinity? I would bet heavily against that, but there is no reason it couldn't make a run to be like Jacksonville (Fla.) Bolles School or Springdale (Ark.) Shiloh Christian," he said. "Small, private schools from outlier areas have shown the ability to be nationally relevant and that is the benefit of the doubt you have to extend to Red Lion."



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