Lebanon High to play JV-only football next fall

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-21-2023 9:08 PM

LEBANON — Lebanon High, which two years ago was an NHIAA Division II football state title contender, will make what’s intended to be a one-year drop to junior varsity competition next fall, the school announced this week. It’s hoped a 2024 return to varsity status will follow.

Included in emails to the program’s players and their parents and another to the Valley News was an announcement of 2022 assistant Doug Johnson as the successor to Herb Hatch, who resigned following last fall’s 0-9 campaign.

Johnson, once an assistant with Dartmouth College’s freshman team before the Ivy League eliminated that level of competition in 1992, will be the Raiders’ third coach in as many years.

Lebanon athletic director Mike Stone said Johnson, who once owned and ran AJ’s Restaurant and Lounge in White River Junction, has never been a head coach but was once a Hartford High assistant when Stone was the Hurricanes’ boss.

“Doug has multiple years of both high school and collegiate coaching experience,” Stone wrote, noting that Johnson, who played for Lebanon during the early 1970s, also competed at NCAA Division III Tufts University outside Boston.

“Perhaps most importantly, (Johnson) understands the current program status and is willing to put in the time to do the things that are necessary … to bring football back to the varsity level.”

Lebanon was built into a regular playoff contender by 15-year head coach Chris Childs, who took the team to the 2010 NHIAA Division IV state championship, the 2019 Division III title game and the 2021 Division II semifinals.

Childs, a onetime Raiders gridiron star, resigned with his entire staff early last year. He gave the stated goal of watching his son begin play at Castleton University in the fall. Childs’ career record was 77-55, and his alma mater didn’t hire Hatch until late May.

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Hatch, who hadn’t been a head coach in 23 years, abandoned the robust summer conditioning and passing league work the Raiders had previously undertaken.

The off-season approach, combined with the loss of all but two starters and numerous talented players to graduation and attrition, led to Lebanon going winless with a small, undersized and inexperienced roster. The Raiders forfeited an October game against Pelham for a lack of healthy players.

Hatch — who said he could find only two assistant coaches to join him, Johnson and George Spaneas — appeared frustrated by the state of the program midway through the season and resigned at its conclusion.

Lebanon recently announced a Feb. 2 meeting for players and parents to discuss the football team’s future, but the drop to the JV level leaked after the school made its intentions known to the NHIAA. Milford High soon posted an online ad seeking a varsity opponent for an October open date, listing the reason as Lebanon’s then-unpublicized move.

The revelation created some backlash, so Stone and Lebanon Principal Ian Smith sent out a Thursday email to players and their parents. It noted that only 18 students attended a meeting after the 2022 season for those interested in playing in 2023.

Included in that group were four current juniors, four current sophomores and two players without football experience. It was made clear at the meeting, Smith and Stone contended in the email, that moving to JV play was on the table.

“Another option considered was to change to a (Division III) schedule,” the pair wrote. “It was unlikely because of standing schedules already completed and the difficulty of petitioning down a division in the midst of a two-year cycle.”

Smith and Stone concluded that playing JV football was “the only realistic option” the email said. “We believe this is the safest level of play based on the numbers we can reasonably anticipate and their experience level.”

In a Friday email responding to questions from the Valley News, Stone wrote that players and parents did not have input into the JV move and that he hopes it will not dissuade incoming freshmen from signing up in the fall. Although JV games are generally understood to be for freshmen and sophomores, Stone said Lebanon’s older players will be allowed to suit up in them.

“With the small number that have expressed interest in playing next year, we feel comfortable that their participation can be managed in a safe way,” he wrote.

Lebanon has seven JV games currently scheduled and could add two more, Stone wrote, adding that the possibility of some freshmen-only competition also exists.

The drop from varsity to JV football isn’t unprecedented in the Upper Valley. Stevens High did so for two years after going winless in varsity football during 2001. By 2005, Cardinals had reached a state title game with future head coach Paul Silva aiding in the revival.

“You have to have a little bit of success to rebuild the interest,” said Silva, now Stevens’ defensive coordinator. “I’m sure if we’d done it in this day and age, with social media, we’d have gotten crushed by people.

“Everybody’s got an opinion, but at some point you have to look out for the safety of the kids and longevity of the program. Our kids were getting pounded and they were leaving, and they weren’t going to come back.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.

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