One of the most successful programs in the history of Lebanon County scholastic sports has fallen on hard times.

But the thing about hitting a relative rock bottom is, there’s nowhere to go but up.

The ELCO boys’ soccer program is searching for a new head coach. The open search began in the middle of June when interim head coach Johnny Mentzer stepped aside.

The search ran through July 6, when the application process closed. Interviews will begin next with the Raiders hoping to get a new head coach approved at the July 19 school board meeting, in time for preseason workouts, which begin in mid-August.

So, time is of the essence.

“I have a huge amount of pride in the program, that was why it was such a hard decision for me to give it up,” said Mentzer. “Most of my staff was made up of former ELCO players. Everyone on staff has an extreme amount of pride and wants to see it do well. My pride and love of the program was why I did it for one year.”

“We’re hoping there’s a quality candidate among the applicants,” said ELCO athletic director Doug Bohannon. “Coaching high school sports today is a little different than it was in the ’70s and ’80s. It wears on you. Expectations are high. The turnover in some of these high-profile high school sports is high, and at ELCO, soccer is a high-profile sport.”

The last few seasons have been a low point for the storied ELCO boys’ soccer program. Perennial threats to win Lancaster-Lebanon League and District Three championships, the Raiders have not qualified for the postseason since 2017.

Over the past four seasons, ELCO has compiled an uncharacteristic overall record of 18-48-3, and during those years there were times when the Raiders simply weren’t competitive in the way the had been for so long. Last year, in a COVID-19 marred campaign and with Mentzer heading the program as a stop-gap measure, the Raiders went 2-8-3. But an infusion of youth produced hope.

“Record-wise, it doesn’t look like it went well,” said Mentzer. “But we improved tremendously over the last couple of years, in terms of competitiveness and being in games. There were times when we played teams extremely tough to the end. We were extremely, extremely young. But the previous two years we struggled to be competitive.

“It was definitely a rebuilding situation,” he continued. “We sort of knew it was coming. The last three senior classes have been the smallest in ELCO history, as far as numbers go. We knew we were going to struggle to get through that stretch. Last year, we started five or six freshmen, and in a normal year, we could’ve been a seven-win team. If I was going to be the head coach this season, my goal going in would be a 9-9 year. Last year, we started two seniors. That’s it. So, we almost have an entire starting lineup returning.”

With state championships in 1977, 1979, 1986, 1998 and 2003, few scholastic sports programs in Lebanon County – if any – have matched the success that ELCO has enjoyed in boys’ soccer over the years. Founded in 1962, the Raiders have also captured nine District Three and 16 league titles.

ELCO boys’ soccer won state championships in 1977, 1979, 1986, 1998 and 2003. (Jeff Falk)

“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, we were playing 12 months a year, and most teams were not,” said Bohannon. “Now of course, everybody does it. We were ahead of the game. But things change. You’ve also got to have the athletes.”

“I remember full bleachers. I remember alumni coming to games,” said Mentzer, who was a goalkeeper on the 2002 ELCO team that lost in the state championship game, and on the 2003 squad that won it. “I remember us having pride in ELCO soccer and knowing what to expect. We had hard-nosed, physical kids who were multi-sport athletes. That’s what we’re trying to get the program back to, having well-rounded, multi-sport athletes. I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of really good athletes now, but we want them to play multiple sports.”

For better or worse, things have changed on the local sports landscape over the past 20 years.

There seems to be less participation and more specialization. There are more alternatives for students to get involved in. Sports in general have become more cyclical in nature, especially at smaller schools. And at ELCO specifically, the recent success of the football program, which plays during the same fall season, has impacted the boys’ soccer program.

In many ways, what’s currently going on with the Raiders’ boys’ soccer team is a reflection of societal changes.

“I think we just need to be bigger and stronger, and become more intense,” said Mentzer, who is also a guidance counselor in the ELCO school district. “I think that started last year. We have to get people to be more active, just being more athletic. Players cannot be complacent with losing. Losing is not OK. I felt that the three years prior to last year, we were being complacent. Last year, when we lost, we were upset that we lost. This group of kids has been competitive.”

“When you look back at when the boys’ soccer team was successful, when they were winning and making runs at championships, the players were coached by their fathers,” said Bohannon. “Over the last several years, the players’ fathers didn’t play soccer at ELCO. Before, the kids were second-, sometimes third-generation players. We don’t seem to have that as much anymore. It’s changed.”

That type of tradition creates expectations, expectations that the new head coach will need to channel into positives. While there certainly is a process involved, there’s also the lingering question of whether or not the Raiders will ever again achieve the level of success that they once enjoyed.

“You never want to say ‘no, it can’t happen,’” said Bohannon. “It’s very cyclical. You can have really good four-year stretches. … To be good every year, for 15 to 20 years in a row, there’s not many programs and schools that do that anymore. Can you still be competitive every year? Absolutely. Can they get back to where they were in the ’70s and ’80s? That would be hard.”

“I would say anything is in play,” said Mentzer. “We definitely have the talent level. I see the boys and I see the numbers on the younger levels, and I kind of reminisce a little bit. I see some of that desire. I see some of that drive. It’s coming, and it could be here sooner than later.”

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of, sports director at WLBR...