Every scholastic athletic program in Lebanon County has its challenges to face. But currently, none is facing more – or bigger – challenges than the Lebanon school district.
That`s not necessarily the reason why Sam Elias was hired as the Cedars` athletic director. But it is one of the big reasons why Elias took the job.
So how bad is the current athletic climate at Lebanon, the county`s second largest high school? Dire, bordering on critical.
The Cedars` biggest problem, by far, is participation, or in sports jargon, numbers. The reasons for Lebanon High`s severe decline are societal, socio-economical and complex, but those reasons only make the competitive Elias` task more daunting.
“I want to be politically correct here,” said Elias. “There needs to be improvement everywhere. When I look at the (win-loss) records, we`re on life support. My job is to get it off life support and get it healthy. I`m not trying to be disrespectful to any one involved with the program, but it needs help.
“It (participation) is a problem,” Elias continued. “One thing I thought of when I was here before concerned the junior high football program, which was getting 15 to 18 kids out. They were leaving the middle school (on north Eighth Street) and walking a number of blocks to get to the high school (on south Eighth Street). And they had many opportunities along the way to make left or right turns. And I figured out a place for them to practice at the stadium (behind the middle school).
“All of a sudden our numbers shot up. The key is giving kids less options to do something else. Kids want to do things, but we`re not in a society where they want to take the hard way to do it. I love these challenges. I love to look at problems and fix them.”
Elias took over the helm of the Cedars` ship ten days ago, or more accurately re-assumed the reins. Elias was Lebanon`s athletic director from 1997 through 2002.
During the past 11 years, Elias, who currently serves as the District Three chairman, was the athletic director at Hershey High. At Lebanon, Elias took over for Terry Johnston, who served her alma matter as athletic director for the last year and a half.
“During the time I was away, some things weren`t pushed through,” said Elias. “That was a magnet for me. I had mixed feelings when I left. I never lost my love for Lebanon. This time they (the administration) were able to afford me because I don`t need the income I needed in the past. There`s a comfort level here, a familiarity. I don`t have to re-acquaint myself with things. This is an easier transition.
“I recall starting to build the football program,” Elias added. “The football program was starting to get established. Both boys` and girls` basketball were at the top level. I was getting some of the other sports rolling. The reason we`ve struggled is that we don`t have the resources that kids at other schools have. We`re in a different situation. We may not be able to win championships, but we can be competitive. I want teams who come to Lebanon to know that they`ve been in a battle.
“The other thing when I was here, we built the field house. It was something I was proud to be a part of. A lot of the things going on now, I have a little bit of a history with. But there`s still some things I`d like to do.”
What is debatable is the degree to which any athletic director can influence his or her overall scholastic program, including participation. While Elias` straight-forward approach can put others off, there`s no denying his passion, his resolve and his persuasiveness.
“I am competitive,” said Elias. “I expect to win. But I`m realistic enough to know that it won`t be easy. I put expectations on everyone around me. I add intensity. The expectations are high. My standards are different than most people`s. Wherever I`ve left, I`ve left it in a better place, whether it was budget or coaches. At Hershey, I walked into a not-so-good situation, even though it looked pretty from the outside. My goal is to walk out of here and leave Lebanon a better place.
“We need to get students out for the sports,” Elias continued. “And put them in the right places. My next challenge is to provide mentorship for coaches to get us to the next level. We need to get every student who is an athlete. We need to convince them of the importance of playing sports. I`ve done it other places and I believe I can do it here. If I can get the attitudes of the students and coaches on the same page, we`ll have something to build on. I`m accustomed to the type of students who appreciate hard work.”
While the lack of participation has hurt the Cedars across the sports board, there are some programs which have been affected more than others. Most notably wrestling, track and field, cross country, football and baseball are among the sports which have been hit the hardest.
It is Elias` contention that there are potential student-athletes roaming the halls of Lebanon High School.
One of Elias` first acts as athletic director was to move the sports of wrestling and boys` and girls` volleyball away from their former home at the Lebanon Middle School back to the high school.
“I realize basketball is king in this community,” said Elias, 60. “But I want to bring wrestling and volleyball back to the high school. They`re going to be relevant. Those kids are going to know they`re part of this high school.
“I do have a lot left in me,” continued Elias. “This is my 40th year in education. When you`re around kids, you do feel young. Mentally, I feel like I`m 30 or 40.”
A native of Kingston, PA, Elias is a graduate of Wyoming Valley West high school and Mansfield University. Elias holds a masters` degree from the University of Scranton.
“Hershey had some change in leadership,” said Elias. “I thought the timing was right for me to retire. When I was considering it, the job opened up at Lebanon. The stars just aligned. It was a great fit. In 2004, they passed ACT 66 that allowed athletic directors who have retired to work full-time, and because of that the timing was perfect.
“During that time period I was trying to stay on top of some of the things going on at Lebanon,” added Elias. “I love what I do. I`m not ready to completely retire. It was an opportunity to stay working full-time. I`d like to be here a minimum of five years. There are some things I`d like to fix, and get Lebanon revived in some sports.”