Faith Christian's IHSAA membership a big step, but path hasn't changed
September 9, 2012Faith Christian High School
The girls soccer players huddled in front of their goal, their feet planted on a slick, mucky field and a double rainbow draping the sky above them. Nearly every athletic team, regardless of sport or competition level, holds some version of this pregame ritual. At Faith Christian School, these moments typically have little to do with crafting strategy or pumping up the competitors. This is when the team, sometimes joined by other athletes or members of the student body, gathers to pray.
After the “Amen” on that rainy August evening, the players broke from their huddle with a more common exclamation.
“One, two, three — Eagles!”
Having completed two years of provisional membership, Faith Christian is now a full member of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Its student-athletes will be held to the governing body’s regulations, and its teams will compete in IHSAA tournaments, along with more than 400 other schools.
This elevation is the latest example of the school’s development over the past 15 years. The school has grown from an upstart with a tiny inaugural graduating class to a significant presence in the community.
Yet as much as Faith Christian’s administrators, coaches and students sought equal athletic standing with area schools, they’re also proud to stand out. Faith is more than a word on a uniform, and the Eagles’ goals are focused far beyond their next competition.
“I think athletics is another way to show people how we are striving to be more like Christ, and it’s also a way to show people that we’re not hiding ourselves away in this little Christian school,” said Maggie Wetzel, a senior soccer player. “We’re trying to get out there and be with everybody else. What prompts questions sometimes is, what makes you different? Well, we have Christ, and I think people can really start to see that in the way we play.”
Although Faith Christian began in 1997 with an enrollment of just 48 in grades 9-12, athletics were always a part of the core. Boys and girls basketball, boys soccer and volleyball were varsity sports from the school’s inception. By its fourth year, Faith Christian was a full K-12 operation with an enrollment of more than 300.
A merger with Kossuth Street Baptist Church’s Highland Christian School in 2001 triggered a 20,000-square-foot addition to the Faith facility on Indiana 26 East.
Walk the halls of the school today and you won’t notice much of an aesthetic difference from public schools of a similar size. Students from about 70 churches of varying denominations attend classes. In recent years, the school has drawn students from 10 counties.
The school advertises an academic platform that is inclusive and diverse, an extensive fine arts program and a complete athletic program. Each of those elements is grounded in a faith-based approach, which may be the biggest attraction for prospective families.
“The education we receive is Christ-centered, and all the teachers care, which I know is also prevalent at public schools,” junior soccer player John Spykman said. “Here we have teachers who would say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? What’s going on in your life? How’s your family?’ You develop closer relationships because of the class size and the teachers. We all share that we’re in the common bond of Christ.”
Faith Christian participated in Christian school athletic organizations and state tournaments for more than a dozen years. Principal Lynn Heusinger said the school considered applying for IHSAA membership after Eagles teams became more competitive against teams that were succeeding in the IHSAA tournaments.
Faith Christian’s volleyball team won four straight Indiana Christian State Tournament championships from 2005-08. That same era included a victory over Class 3A power Frankfort. The Eagles had already been accepted to the IHSAA last winter when the boys basketball team, led by current Purdue walk-on Stephen Toyra, won Delphi’s inaugural Indiana Kitchen Classic.
Faith is among a flock of small private schools, often religiously affiliated, who have acquired IHSAA membership in recent years. With private schools already dominating small-school state tournament play in some sports, the addition of more of those schools to the lower classes has stirred concern among some public school supporters.
From Central Catholic to Fort Wayne’s Bishop Luers to Evansville’s Mater Dei, smaller private schools in the state’s larger cities have typically found a recipe for success. Faith’s athletic programs are not on the verge of that kind of state tournament advancement, and the necessary spiritual commitment could give pause to any prospective student whose priority is athletics.
“What we tell them straight up front is, this is what our mission is all about,” said Heusinger, who coaches girls basketball and previously was athletic director. “We ask them why they want to come, because if we’re not on the same page, we’re not helping them, and they’re not going to feel at home with what we want to do, because we want them to please God with what they do.
“We’ve been doing better athletically, but it’s not like you look at us and go, wow, I want to go to Faith because they’re progressing up into the state tournaments and I want to be a part of that. Kids that come here, they may be a student-athlete, but they say, you actually have this kind of atmosphere AND you offer athletics? I’d love to be a part of that. That’s where it comes into play.”
Faith Christian’s coaching roster also demonstrates a spiritual priority. Tom Bennett, in his first year as athletic director and awaiting his 10th season as baseball coach, is the pastor at Life Change Ministries on Earl Avenue.
He said 80 percent to 90 percent of the head coaches are Christian school staff members, and even lay coaches are hired based in part on their Christian testimony and philosophy.
“There’s two big differences coaching here,” Bennett said. “No. 1, when we have a problem with an athlete here, we just go straight to the heart with God’s word, and we talk on that level. The other difference is, we get just tremendous parental support. I’ve coached baseball — this will be my 10th year — and I’ve had two casual, and I stress casual, conversations with parents about playing time. Two in nine years.
“The agenda I just went through with my fall coaches, we hardly talked about (winning), because I know our coaches understand how to have on-field, on-court success. The biggest thing I’ve talked to our coaches about is, do you have a proactive spiritual plan?”
Like an Eagle
Faith Christian is not the only area athletic team that has engaged in prayer on the field. For example, Central Catholic’s football team conducts a prayer in the end zone after each game, and it’s not unheard of for players from public school teams to kneel, hold hands and bow their heads after a contest.
Yet one can’t help but notice a different vibe at Faith, one as sincere as it is fervent. Girls soccer coach David Ungaro said that over the course of a recent trip to and from Benton Central, his team prayed five times.
“It’s ingrained in them; it’s just second nature,” said Ungaro, a physical education teacher and athletic director at Lafayette Christian and longtime area soccer official. This is his first season as Faith’s head coach. “It’s not an act. It’s not, ‘Well, I’m from Faith, so I have to do that.’ It’s just natural.”
Eagles athletes often invite opposing teams to join their postgame prayers. Senior cross country runner Maggie Markley will offer encouraging words to competitors on the course. Though it’s uncommon to receive a rude response, reactions to these and other aspects of the Faith athletes’ conduct can be mixed.
Standing out from one’s peers isn’t easy at an age when image means a lot. Yet it’s hard to find a Faith Christian athlete who feels self-conscious about professing their convictions.
“We embrace it, because it gives us an opportunity to be a light for Christ and show our community that we’re different,” Spykman said. “We’re called to be different. We’re called to be lights and we’re called to be a witness, and that’s something that we aim to do in our athletics and our education and in other things that we’re involved in.”
As it transitioned to IHSAA membership, Faith Christian added new opponents to its athletic schedules.
Last year, Eagles teams played more public schools than ever before, including a boys basketball schedule that featured only one non-IHSAA member.
Faith Christian hosted Fountain Central for homecoming, and the Mustangs helped pack the community center’s tiny gym. Heusinger said he and Fountain Central athletic director Brian Moore had to shout to communicate over the band and crowd even while standing next to each other.
“I like the place,” Moore said. “It was an upbeat environment. You can understand why families would want their kids involved in an atmosphere like that. I was impressed with the way their pep block interacted, and their band. They did a good job. It’s a class organization, and I like having them on our schedule.”
The challenge ahead
In a few weeks, Faith Christian athletes will begin IHSAA tournament play. The Eagles will compete in the same sectionals as West Lafayette’s state-ranked cross country and soccer programs and Frontier’s accomplished volleyball team.
“We’re just going to try even more, just put all of our heart into it,” said senior Lacy Deitrick, a three-sport athlete who transferred to Faith after two years at McCutcheon. “We have sectionals at the end, and it’s a way to test how hard we’ve been working, not only in sports, but in our attitudes. Just have good sportsmanship and work as hard as we can for the glory of God.”
Faith’s athletes endeavor to hoist a trophy as much as any of their competitors, but win or lose, they will likely measure their success differently.
“We want to win,” said Mariel Netherton, a junior soccer player. “We want to be competitive. We want to have good programs and stuff. But it’s only for this life.
“From our perspective, we have eternity in mind, so that takes precedence. We want to be competitive, we want to honor God in that way, to try our hardest. But we also want to be a witness, because that’s what really counts. That’s what really matters in the end.