BY JEFF FALK
RED LION – No matter how many times a coach addresses his team during a season, the last one is always the most difficult. Jesse Shay pulled his off last night with a certain heart-felt flair, simply by drawing from his upbringing, his education and his spirituality.
Shay’s farewell speech came on a crisp Friday evening mere moments after his Red Lion football team had dropped its first decision of the fall, a 13-7 season-ending setback at the hands of Central Dauphin East in the opening round of the District Three Class AAAAAA playoffs at Red Lion’s Horn Field. And what made Shay’s address even harder to get out was the fact that the Lions played the way they had been coached – well, hard and with many of the same traits that their head man exhibits.
Shay, a product of a disbanded Lebanon Catholic football program, deserves much of the credit for turning Red Lion’s in the right direction. After taking over as head coach of a team that went 1-9 in 2012, Shay’s transformation of the Lions’ culminated in a 10-0 regular season this year.
“It is important to me,” said Shay of a Catholic education laced with pigskins and gridirons. “It’s not always in the forefront of my mind, but it’s very important. Lebanon Catholic is my alma mater. They’re a big reason I am the way I am. If I can, in some little way, keep the legacy of Lebanon Catholic going, it’s a little humbling. I’m proud to be a Beaver.
“It (the final address) is the most difficult,” Shay continued. “What I told them (his players) is that in the entire state, only six good teams are going to end their seasons with a win. We’re not one of them, but it doesn’t negate what we did this year. That’s what they’re going to remember.”
Shay’s Lions, the third seed, certainly had their opportunities against the athletic 6-4, sixth-seed from C.D. East. But Red Lion just couldn’t produce a big play when it needed it most.
Red Lion’s 13-7 deficit at halftime was also its first of the season. Neither team scored in the second half.
“I thought we played well,” said Shay. “We really did. We made some mistakes. But that was a very good, athletic football team we were playing. There’s no question they were the best team we played this season. We stood toe-to-toe with them and lost by six points. It is what it is.
“To nitpick and say this would’ve been different, we’re beyond that,” Shay continued. “The seniors did such a tremendous job for us.”
The only two touchdowns of the game were scored in the opening quarter, 1:41 apart.
Central Dauphin East’s Aaron Arp opened the show by returning an interception 60 yards for a 7-0 lead, just 4:01 in. But Red Lion responded with Paul Jones’ 52-yard touchdown reception off right tackle on its next possession.
The difference ended up being a pair of Anthony Calamia field goals – one from 28 yards out and the other from 26 yards away. That and a Panther defense that shut down a Red Lion offense that averaged over five touchdowns per outing during the regular year.
“Their speed on defense forced us to run the ball in different ways,” said Shay. “We were averaging 300 rushing yards per game, and we didn’t get there. They have a lot of athletes. They wanted to spread us out, and our defense’s strength is stopping the run.
“I thought both defenses played well,” added Shay. “Their defense gave up seven points and our’s gave up six. In the first half, we were playing bend-don’t-break defense. We emphasize staying the course. You can’t fault the kids. Let’s be honest. People who paid to see this got their money’s worth.”
Shay, who does not call offensive or defensive plays, spent much of his evening pacing the sidelines. But he was also the Lions’ number-one cheerleader, always remaining positive, even when things weren’t going their way.
“We were looking to win,” said Shay. “I had a conversation with a news reporter this week, and over our history, we haven’t done well against the Mid-Penn (conference). I thought this team was going to be different.”
Friday marked the third straight District Three playoff appearance for the Lions under Shay. Over the last four years, Red Lion has gone 27-16 overall with Shay at the helm.
Shay came to Red Lion from Bishop McDevitt, where he was the defensive coordinator and linebacker coach from 2006-12 under his high school coach at Lebanon Catholic, Jeff Weachter. During that time, the Crusaders won four District Three championships and finished second in the state twice.
“Competition is what has always driven me,” said Shay, 37. “From playing backyard basketball with my brother to being out here. You saw that competitiveness tonight.
“I knew I wanted to coach football when I figured out I wasn’t going to make it to the NFL,” added Shay. “My senior year, I got a recruiting letter and me and my dad visited Virginia Tech. I told him, ‘I can’t play at this level.'”
Shay was a four-year starter at Lebanon Catholic in the mid 1990s, at a time when the Beavers were struggling to keep their program going. After playing football at Ursinus, Shay took his first coaching position as a linebacker assistant at Northern Lebanon, from 2003 to 2006.
“What we’ve got going on here is getting a lot of kids buying into the concept of putting something in the forefront of their minds besides themselves,” said Shay. “(Quarterback) Sam Emig is a program kid. He didn’t start last year. He’s a one-year starter. What he learned is that you don’t quit, you don’t give up and you keep moving forward. I don’t know how you follow up a 10-0 season. But I can’t wait to see what the underclassmen have in store for us.”
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|7:00 PM||W 38-14|
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