Tuesday, July 4, 2017 | 2 a.m.
It was halftime of a closely contested game when Bonanza High football coach Dion Lee asked his players a question: Do we go for the 2-point conversion or kick the extra point?
Lee sensed the game with Durango would be decided by one play, and he wanted the players to determine if they’d gamble by going for two points and the immediate win, or settle for an extra point to force overtime.
“The whole team agreed. We are here to win games; we’re going for the win,” Lee recalled.
Lee’s strategy of building a successful program at perennial loser Bonanza is following a similar strategy. While he’s the unquestioned leader, the only way to achieve the lofty goal of becoming competitive requires everyone pulling in the same direction.
This week, that means long hours in the 110-degree heat manning a fireworks booth for a fundraiser. The program is halfway to its goal of bringing in $100,000 for much-needed equipment and stadium upgrades, and selling fireworks for the past week at Lake Mead Boulevard and Buffalo Drive will net about $7,500.
More important, it provides sweat equity.
Many of the 100 families in the program have battled the summer conditions to work at least four hours. As for Lee, he’s barely left the booth.
“It’s pretty cool today. It’s barely 100,” Lee jokingly said Monday morning. “You lead by example. I have been out here 68 of the possible 72 hours. I am the head coach and asking my troops to bow down. I have to be with them. We told the kids to do a few hours, and we (assistant coaches and Lee) will do the rest.”
When Lee was hired last spring, many questioned the move. While Lee had coached high school football in California, that was nearly a decade prior, and he wasn’t part of the local prep scene. His most recent experience was as the longtime coach of the Las Vegas Showgirlz, a women’s tackle team.
Lee didn’t care what you thought about him or his program. His mentality has always been giving his players a good high school experience. If that means a few long days in the heat selling sparklers and ground spinners, so be it.
“We were the laughingstock,” Lee said. “One, we haven’t won, and two, who is this women’s football coach they brought in? We had nothing to lose.”
Lee has had the last laugh.
He inherited a program with about 50 players and no freshman team. They now have 100 returners and expect a freshman team this fall of more than 40 players. But there’s competition, especially in the Sunset Region, where the opposition includes reigning national champion Bishop Gorman, Arbor View, Centennial, Faith Lutheran and Palo Verde — schools with seemingly unlimited resources and bursting at the seams with participation.
Money will go for everything from new uniforms and helmets to keep up with the Joneses to funding a nutrition program so players have a meal when they are hungry, including on game day. About 75 percent of the players in the program come from low-income families.
They’ve sold beef jerky, coupon books and hosted a lift-a-thon — for each pound a player lifted, a sponsor made a small donation. They’ve also launched a Go Fund Me page and asked alumni to make $25 donations.
In addition to uniforms, Lee plans to paint the bleachers Bengal brown and yellow, and replace the stadium scoreboard and sound system.
“It’s that swag appeal, the glitz and glamour,” he said. “Look at Gorman. They have six helmets and 10 sets of uniforms, and everyone wants to play there. It is the Oregon Duck effect. You look different and play different. That’s a good way to attract kids to the school.”
So is improved play.
Bonanza only lost to Gorman, the eight-time defending state champions, by 42 points last season to give players a confidence boost and pieced together four straight wins to make a surprise playoff appearance. This spring, they won five games in the UNLV 7-on-7 (no linemen) tournament, and in another passing tournament, they beat Arbor View and Centennial.
Lee boasts about having a “no-name” quarterback in undersized junior Kyle Allison, whom he promises will soon be mentioned as one of Southern Nevada’s best. He’s selling banners to be hung around the fencing of the stadium for $500 and telling advertisers their logo will hang throughout the season, including “two or three playoff games.”
Yes, it’s a different mentality — everything from that 2-point conversion attempt that misfired against Durango to executing the plan to compete alongside Gorman and Arbor View.
“We are turning a lot of heads. People are starting to notice the effort,” Lee said. “We are getting out in the community. Bonanza has a 40-year history and a lot of alumni. These kids are proud to be part of it. They are revitalizing the program.”