Red Lion’s Jen Horvatinovic, front right, has seen both ends of the Red Lion defense -- on the team and as an opposing player with Dallastown.
Red Lion's Jen Horvatinovic, front right, has seen both ends of the Red Lion defense -- on the team and as an opposing player with Dallastown. 'It was nerve-wracking three days before,' she said, 'because you knew you had to play against the press.' (GAMETIMEPA.COM -- FILE)

First, you need an edge.

This, ultimately, is the key. Strip away the scheme, the endless barrage of rotations and traps that look more like chaos than an intricately crafted defense.

Take those away, and you're left with the driving force behind the most successful big-school basketball program in York County.

In order to press opponents like Red Lion girls do -- to hurry and harass for 32 minutes -- you need an attitude, a smoldering intensity that never flickers out.

This is what Don Dimoff was trying impart to his players, as they wound down a practice last month. The Lions were nearing their 90th minute of an up-and-down, intrasquad scrimmage. It was their sixth practice in as many days.

At one point, when his team's energy and execution seemed to dip, the coach called his players together. He wanted to make sure their sloppiness was bothering them.

"It absolutely is an edge, an attitude," Dimoff said later. "Without that, you can't play this way. Literally, this week, I've been working on that.

"It's as much trying to instill an attitude as it is X's and O's."

Understand that, and you can begin to uncover the blueprint that has delivered 10 straight 20-win seasons and the last 12 YAIAA Division I titles. For more than a decade, the lifeblood of Red Lion's program has been a relentless, pressing defense -- a full-court onslaught that begins at a game's tip-off and doesn't end until its final whistle. It's a system, Dimoff admits, that to the casual observer, "doesn't seem to have any rhyme or reason."

Of course, there's much more to it than that.

But the first ingredient of basketball's version of the jailbreak blitz is something less technical.

"You have to have an extreme level of focus," said senior Jen Horvantinovic, the Lions star forward. "To want to play a full-court game the entire game takes a mental edge."

* * *

Next, you need the legs.

This part goes without saying. To play at a fast-forward tempo for four full quarters, you need to be in shape.

But go to a Red Lion practice, and you won't see boot-camp-style conditioning drills. The only sprints run are when certain in-practice goals aren't met -- such as not making a certain number of free throws in a row at the end of practice. Or if they miss too many free throws in practice.

"We want everything to be a competition," Dimoff said.

Instead, the Lions spend much of their practice immersed in a fast-paced, scrimmage-style setting. Dimoff wants his players doing everything at full speed, from executing their press to running freshly installed offensive sets. He calls his "conditioning by accident."

The structure serves a dual purpose. Dimoff's players need to be able to think on the fly, even when their legs are heavy and their lungs heaving.

"Physically we need to be able to obviously press and run around and be like crazy," senior point guard Kasey Seitz said. "But mentally you need to know what you're doing and how to read the offense and know what you're doing."

* * *

Before all of that, you need a plan.

After a recent practice, Dimoff told the story of how his system evolved. About 15 years ago, he devised a hybrid, trapping defense for his team to use in the halfcourt set. He wanted a scheme that would give his team -- devoid of elite size or athleticism -- the ability to compete with top-level, Class AAAA competition.

"When we started doing it," Dimoff said, "teams didn't know if it was man or zone."

Don Dimoff’s teams have won 20 wins or more for the last 10 seasons.
Don Dimoff's teams have won 20 wins or more for the last 10 seasons. (GAMETIMEPA.COM -- FILE)

Soon after, he adjusted the defense to fit a full-court style. It is perhaps not a coincidence the Lions' run of Division I titles began around the same time.

Dimoff is generally coy about the intricacies of his press. The system, he says, is a mix of man-to-man and zone principles. But more than anything, its success is predicated on the ability of his players to read and react to what's going on around them. Each player's duty changes based on where and who the ball goes to.

One of Dimoff's favorite lines to his players is, "I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you what you should have done."

Red Lion’s Morgan Kuehne, left, and Shanley Harlacker, who graduated after last season, pressure York Catholic’s Hannah Laslo during last
Red Lion's Morgan Kuehne, left, and Shanley Harlacker, who graduated after last season, pressure York Catholic's Hannah Laslo during last season's YAIAA tournament championship game. Kuehne and Harlacker were just two players who made ball movement difficult for the opposition. (GAMETIMEPA.COM -- FILE)

The system is tweaked from game-to-game and season-to-season, based on Red Lion's opponents and -- perhaps more importantly -- Dimoff's his own personnel. Its overarching goals, however, remain the same: To cause opponents to panic, to funnel them into tight spaces, then corner them with a double-team.

Horvatinovic has been on both sides of the Lions' trap. She played two years for rival Dallastown before transferring to Red Lion before last season. She called playing against Red Lion's defense "awful."

"It was nerve-wracking three days before because you knew you had to play against the press," she said.

"There's more of an organization or a system behind it that's hard to understand unless you've been through the practices."

* * *

Of course, you need talent, too.

The Lions have had plenty of that. In the last two years, they have sent one player to Division I Illinois-Chicago (Gisselle Truiett) and graduated another 1,000-point scorer (Erica Maciejewski, now at Bloomsburg). Horvatinovic has committed to Monmouth.

Red Lion's last two seasons have both delivered District 3 titles. Its 2012 campaign ended with a 29-2 record.

Recapturing such success this season will be difficult. Horvatinovic will be the team's lone returning starter, although Seitz essentially played a starter's minutes last season. Depth will be a concern.

And Division I might be as deep as it's been in years, with Dallastown primed for a run and newcomer West York joining the fray.

In time, that 12-year title streak may be tested.

But the system that has produced that run remains intact -- along with, the coach hopes, perhaps the biggest factor behind its success.

"This isn't a defense that you can just install and say we're going to run this," Dimoff said. "I say it all the time; unless you have the proper type of kids, it's very difficult to play this. You have to be willing to run through a wall."

@johnsclayton; 771-2045

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