Steve Polonus has an abiding interest in local sports.
Polonus has been a high school coach or athletic director in the Lancaster and Lebanon area for more than three decades, including 15 years in the School District of Lancaster and the last five at Hempfield.
That interest led him to submit this week’s “We the People” question.
“What are the origins and history of the high school mascots for each of the schools in the Lancaster-Lebanon League?” he asked.
“We the People” is a reader-powered journalism project through which readers suggest topics and then vote which one deserves investigation.
Polonus said that, through the years, he has “been curious of and interested in the origins of high school mascots from across the Pennsylvania.”
He likes that some mascot names stem from “historically significant themes from the local community.” For example, he said, Lititz High School, before it consolidated in the 1950s into Warwick, fielded the Lititz Pretzels, a nod to the Julius Sturgis pretzel factory.
Polonus isn’t alone in being curious. Bob Lehr, a Millersville native, was a senior at Penn Manor when the Comets nickname was chosen. He was curious enough about the Millersville University Marauders that he researched the topic (and developed a fascination with pirates along the way).
Lehr said the college team got its name around 1940, when former New Era sportswriter George Kirchner (whose namesake George W. Kirchner Memorial Award is still given each year by the Lancaster County Sports Hall of Fame) described their undefeated football team going through their opponents “like marauders.” The name stuck.
“He was a character,” Lehr said of Kirchner. “He really went to town with his writing.”
Other schools — including Solanco and Manheim Township — also owe their names to the florid pen of local sportswriters, Lehr said.
To get Polonus’s answer, we went straight to the source: the 26 schools in the Lancaster-Lebanon League.
Surprisingly, some school districts don’t know the origins of their mascots, and a few didn’t respond to requests for information.
Anyone who can fill in the blanks should email what they know to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s what we found out:
“We have not been able to confirm this information,” athletic director Tommy Long said in an email, “but the belief is that we are called the Dutchmen because Lebanon Valley College (located in Annville) is the Flying Dutchmen.”
Cedar Crest: Falcons
Earl Boltz, Cornwall-Lebanon’s first high school principal in 1966, chose the falcon as its mascot, district spokeswoman Amy Rose Wissinger.
“Sorry, I can’t answer the ‘why,’ ” she said.
“For a short time, perhaps two years, a live falcon named Freida was permitted to fly over the campus during football games,” Wissinger said. “Upon Freida’s death, she was mounted and placed in a display case near the gymnasium where she remained for many years.”
The school fields a falcon costume-wearing mascot at its games, she said.
Superintendent Ella Musser said she had “very little information on the history of the mascot.”
However, she said in an email, legend has it that former boys gym teacher Harry Schaeffer “found an eagle, had it stuffed and placed it in the school lobby, which is how we came to be known as the Eagles.”
Musser said she doesn’t know when that happened, or how Schaeffer came to find an eagle.
Columbia Borough: Crimson Tide
Superintendent Tom Strickler said the district doesn’t have a mascot to go with the Crimson Tide name.
He said he doesn’t know the history of the name’s use in Columbia.
Conestoga Valley: Buckskins
District spokeswoman Kendal Gapinski said the Buckskinner was created shortly after Conestoga Valley High School opened in 1958.
“The Buckskinner was often the point person or scout for the wagon trains going west,” she explained. “Thus, a symbol for the leader or trailblazer for the district.”
The Buckskinner has been the school mascot ever since, Gapinski said. The figure was redesigned in 2013.
Initially there was no mascot when three smaller school districts — East Donegal, Marietta and Mount Joy — consolidated as Donegal in the early 1950s, according to district superintendent J. Michael Lausch.
“In 1955, the first year a class graduated from the new Donegal Area School District, a contest was held,” he said.
Classes in grades seven through 12 were asked to suggest a name; one of the younger classes, he’s not sure which, suggested the Indians.
Students mustered enough votes for Indians to win the day, Lausch said. The school does not use a mascot at games, he said.
Doug Bohannon, athletic director for ELCO, said he’s not 100 percent sure how they became the Raiders.
ELCO is a merger of former Myerstown, Schaefferstown and Newmanstown high schools, Bohannon said.
Respectively, their mascots were the Mohawks, Barons and Maroons when they merged — “so maybe they went with Raiders to have something different,” he said. “That is what I was told and heard many years ago.”
ELCO no longer uses an Indian head as its logo, he noted, substituting a spear in its place.
Elizabethtown Area: Bears
The black bear, so far as athletic director Linda Ahern can tell, “was always our mascot” in Elizabethtown.
She spent a few hours perusing old school yearbooks, she said. In the 1947 yearbook, she found the following entry:
“For many years the bear has been the mascot of our school. The bear, we believe, is a fitting symbol for our athletic teams and high school, since the bear is well known to be a determined and intelligent fighter. For this reason we have chosen the bear to be our school's mascot.”
The mascot is on display in the school lobby in the form of a stuffed and mounted bear, which was donated to the district years ago, Ahern said.
Ephrata Area: Mountaineers
The Ephrata school newspaper, The Mountaineer, was first published in 1927, according to district spokeswoman Sarah McBee. She said it took its sobriquet “from the name given to the school basketball team by sportswriters who derived the name from the contour of the town.”
The Mountaineer became the official Ephrata High School mascot in 1963, McBee said. Students selected the character from a variety of submissions, she said.
The school trained a coonhound, named Pride, to accompany the mascot to games in the early 1970s. Pride, McBee said, performed tricks “when the football or basketball teams scored or when a wrestler earned a decision.”
The Mountaineer got a new design in 1990, when students selected from a group of sketches by art teacher Rick Huck.
Garden Spot: Spartans
According to local historians, high school principal and athletic director Matt Sanger said, “students were provided four mascots from which to choose.
“The student body voted on their favorite, and Spartans won the popular vote,” he said. “We’ve been known as the Spartans ever since.”
Hempfield: Black Knights
District spokeswoman Shannon Zimmerman found the answer in a speech given several years ago by Don Emich, a 1955 Hempfield graduate, at his induction into the district’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
According to Emich, former Intelligencer Journal sports editor Marvin Miller wrote about Hempfield athletes as the “Red and Black of Hempfield” or “the boys from Landisville” in articles in the early 1950s. By the mid-’50s, the student council decided they needed an official name.
They solicited names from the student body, pared entries down to five and asked students to vote. The Black Knights were victorious.
Emich said the name was submitted by classmate Ken Bowers, who told him he chose the name to honor the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, whose athletes were “at the pinnacle of college football” in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Their official name was the Cadets but they were fondly known as “the Black Knights of the Hudson,” Emich said. (The Army formally changed its team name to the Black Knights in 1999, some 44 years after Hempfield adopted the name.)
The Pioneer became the official symbol of Lampeter-Strasburg in 1953, school spokeswoman Anne Harnish said.
“The school board chose the Pioneer because of our area’s rich history,” she said, further noting that the first land grant in Lancaster County was made in West Lampeter Township in 1710 by seven Mennonite settlers — including two, Hans Herr and Martin Meylin, for whom the L-S intermediate and middle schools are named.
“There is not currently an official Pioneer mascot,” Harnish said. “The closest we’ve come was the drum major’s costume in the 1970s.”
Lancaster Catholic: Crusaders
Lancaster Catholic did not respond to multiple requests for information.
Lancaster Country Day: Cougars
School spokeswoman Dulcey Antonucci said that, since 1908, the school bore a red rose on its seal and on sports uniforms, but it had no mascot until 1972, when the student body voted for the cougar.
The idea, she said, came in part from fathers on the LCDS athletic booster club “who wanted athletic competition stepped up at school.”
No word on why the cougar was chosen, specifically.
“It should be noted that our cougar mascot has a name,” Antonucci noted. “Cuddles.”
Lancaster Mennonite: Blazers
High school principal Elvin Kennel said the Blazers “might be thought of as someone that leads and blazes the path for others. A leader as such.”
The school does not have a mascot to accompany the name, Kennel said.
School spokeswoman Audrey Kreider said the school chose the name in the 1970s.
“Initially there were both Blazers and Blazerettes (for men’s and women’s sports), but a few years later Blazers was inclusive of both genders,” she said. “We believe the name Blazers stemmed from their lamplight logo and the idea of ‘blazing a light,’ both as Christians lighting or shining a path in the darkness and blazing a trail as world changers.”
Athletic director Samuel S. Elias said he wasn’t able to dig up any information on the origins of the Cedars. He forwarded the question to Lebanon teacher and coach Terri Johnston, who said the Cedars name dates back at least to 1937.
“Before that, I think we were just called the ‘red and blue,’ ” Johnston said.
“To the best of my knowledge, we took our name from the many biblical references to the ‘Cedars of Lebanon,’ ” she added. “There is also some speculation that a former sportswriter used the analogy comparing one of our teams to the ‘tall cedars of Lebanon.’ ”
Their team mascot, Johnston said, is a costumed tree named Rooty.
Lebanon Catholic: Beavers
Monsignor Paul Weaver expanded the school’s athletic program, including adding football to their offerings, after becoming head of Lebanon Catholic in 1948.
It’s not clear when they adopted the Beavers as their mascot but, according to information provided by athletic director Joe Shay, the teams “were affectionately known as Weaver’s Beavers” since it was his vision that launched the program.
Manheim Central: Barons
Athletic director George Derbyshire said the Barons were named for the town founder, Baron Henry William Stiegel.
“Historical accounts describe Stiegel as being both energetic and ambitious,” Derbyshire wrote. “The Baron athletic teams of today possess a similar brand of enthusiasm and aggressiveness.”
Manheim Township: Blue Streaks
Marcy Brody, spokeswoman for the school district, said the Blue Streaks came from a newspaper report in 1946.
Brody provided the following excerpt from the book, “Manheim Township Schools: The First 100 Years” by C. Nat Netscher, which says the name was coined during the ’46 varsity basketball playoffs.
“The Hi-Lite (student newspaper) had been trying for over a year to spur student interest in recommending a suitable name. However, it was Lancaster Newspapers, in its coverage of the playoff games, that came up with the label that stuck.
“Some same it was first used by the Intell’s Marv Miller; others think it was the New Era’s George Kirchner. The players were running up the court so fast, they were like ‘blue streaks of lightning’.”
Brody notes that Kirchner, in a March 22, 1946, article, referred to the team as the “newly founded Streaks.”
The school occasionally fields a lion mascot named “Sir Streaks,” Brody said, but he hasn’t made an appearance in recent years.
McCaskey: Red Tornados
Jonathan Mitchell, athletic director at McCaskey, provided information from a past alumni newsletter that sheds some light on the subject.
The team name dates to the 1920s, predating McCaskey itself, the newsletter notes.
According to a letter from alumnus Paul Cogley, sportswriter John Haus described the football team as a “red and black tornado” in 1923 after a 73-0 win over the Lebanon Valley College Reserves. By 1925, he said, the name was shortened to Red Tornados, and the name was officially adopted by McCaskey students in a vote in 1938.
Alumna Kathy Arnold said in the newsletter that the team was initially called the Red and Black Athletes, changing to the Red Tornados by 1945.
There has occasionally been a mascot called “Tornado Man” at games, Mitchell said, “but it hasn't been consistent.”
Northern Lebanon: Vikings
Northern Lebanon did not respond to multiple requests for information.
Gene Lambert, athletic director for the district, said he has “no idea” where the name came from.
Penn Manor: Comets
The history of the Comets starts with a school bus.
According to a 2011 article in the student newspaper Penn Points, provided by district superintendent Michael Leichliter, the school held a contest to name the mascot (in 1953, according to Penn Manor alumnus Bob Lehr) and Spic Erisman, a bus driver at the time, submitted the name “Gold Comets” with his son, Ken.
The name won the contest, although it’s not clear from the article if it was by popular vote or a random drawing.
While “comets” might sound all fast and athletic, Erisman was actually honoring the Gold Comet school bus he drove to pick up students each day.
Pequea Valley: Braves
District superintendent Erik Orndorff and athletic director Mark Grossmann both said they don’t know why Pequea Valley chose the Braves.
Solanco: Golden Mules
Sally Solanco, a live mule mascot — actually a burro — first appeared in the 1955 Southern Lite yearbook, posing with some of the school’s cheerleaders, according to Solanco athletic director Anthony Hall.
If memory serves, Hall said, the mascot was coined by former Intelligencer Journal sportswriter Robert “Red” Bricker in the early 1950s.
“Bricker would drive down to cover football games,” Hall said in an email, “and during the trip would view numerous mule teams toiling in the fields.
“He likened the boys on the gridiron to the hard-working, never-give-up nature of the mule,” he added, “and since Solanco was wearing yellow jerseys, he referred to them as the Golden Mules.”
A move to replace the name — possibly with the Groundhogs — failed years ago, he said.
District spokeswoman Jackie Yanchocik said the mascot was chosen by students in 1957, when Lititz and Rothsville high schools were consolidated into Warwick.
According to a local historian, the late Ron Reedy, the students were “tired of being called the ‘Pretzels’ (and) chose the warrior as their mascot, most likely because of the alliteration,” Yanchocik said.
Warwick still uses the “Warriors” name but doesn’t have an official mascot, she said. Instead, she said, they use a downward pointing spear as their logo.