Zion Lions are back and they mean business

The Zion Lions play Saturday at 7 p.m. at Pine View High School | File photo by Robert Hoppie, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – The Zion Lions are back for their 2017 season and after falling one victory short of the Rocky Mountain Football League’s crown the past three years, there is a renewed intensity and resolve in their camp.

“The goal is simple: We want to win the championship and nothing else will satisfy us,” said team owner and head coach Dale Stott.

The Lions begin their season Saturday night against the Las Vegas Spartans with home games this year being held at Pine View High School (more on that in a moment).

Semi-pro football has lived in southern Utah for more than a decade, but never has the St. George team focused more on the “pro” part of that designation. Whether it was the St. George Blitz or the Dixie Rebels or the Zion Lions, the semi-pro team in St. George has always been a talented bunch of former college athletes with a bit of a good ol’ boys feel. Fights with opponents (and sometimes teammates) were not uncommon. Penalties were plentiful, especially the personal foul types. And practices were lightly attended, at best.

“We feel like we had to make some changes if we were going to get over the hump,” Stott said. “The biggest change is discipline. Basically, players were selected and invited onto the team. Practices are required and we practice two times a week.”

Stott said he held a meeting with the players in November and told them he would only coach if he had guys who were committed to excellence and discipline.

“I did not enjoy coaching last year,” he said. “I told them I wanted to be a coach, not a rec leader. A coach has to have some authority. This is my team and I want it to reflect the hard work and effort that we put in.”

Stott, an M.D. who owns and operates Zion Pain Management in St. George, said part of the change is that players no longer have to “pay to play,” an unprecedented move in semi-pro football. He is footing the player fees (as much as two to three hundred dollars) and also providing the equipment for his team, another unusual move at the semi-pro level.

Zion Lions owner/coach Dale Stott, Zion Lions vs. Utah Wildcats, Football, June 4, 2016, | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

“I have some leverage now,” Stott said. “I can be a coach. And I told the team there will be no more fighting, no more thuggery like we had last year.”

The shift in philosophy may be a ground-breaking move in semi-pro football. There are hundreds of semi-pro football teams around the United States and Canada, but almost without exception, players have to pay to play and provide their own equipment. Stott may be providing the model for a new kind of semi-pro sports.

Of course, there is one hitch. Someone (in this case, Stott) has to foot the bill for the team, which includes venue rental, equipment, game personnel (including officials) and other administrative costs.

How can this work without becoming a huge money pit?

“Well, right now it is coming out of my pocket, but that’s hopefully not going to be the case,” Stott said. “There are a few ways to recoup some of that money. We hope to sell a few tickets. We own the concessions this year. There’s team merchandise and we also hope to get some sponsors.”

Concession sales is one of the reasons the Zion Lions have moved their games to Pine View High School this year. The Lions did not own or make any money off concessions, plus the concession and bathroom “situations were less than ideal” at the Dixie Sunbowl.

“We’re really grateful to the city for letting us play at the Dixie Sunbowl and we will miss it,” Stott said. “There was a certain nostalgia about playing there. It was a cool place to play. We still practice there.”

Stott said the Washington County School District reduced the fees to rent high school stadiums by half, which also factored into the decision to move the games. But the biggest factor for Stott was the fans.

“Sitting on those seats in the Sunbowl, on concrete, was just not comfortable,” he said. “Pine View has those chair seats and that will make it so much more enjoyable to sit and watch a game. Plus, with new bathrooms and concessions being built at Pine View, it will make it a much better experience for the fans.”

Stott’s new system and philosophy means the Lions only have about 35 players, down from nearly 60 last season. But he said the core group of guys are back, all with the resolve to win the league title.

Check back Thursday for more on this year’s team, including the return of a former RMFL MVP and the reappearance of a couple of former local high school stars.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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