By Maurice Patton
Zion Christian Academy officials confirmed this week plans to leave the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association for the 2021-22 school year and join the Tennessee State Independent Athletic Association.
“It aligns us with schools that are a little bit more similarly sized to us,” Zion Christian head of school Rick Jarvis said. “It’s something that (athletics director) Derek Boyd and I started talking about earlier this year. One of the things we started talking about was, how do we give our student-athletes an opportunity for some success? It’s very difficult with the current setup, the schools in Nashville we play. It’s demoralizing to our kids at times.
“Our kids have to have an opportunity for success. That’s kind of what started this process. In the two years I’ve been here, it’s been a challenge. Our kids work just as hard as anybody else. Our coaches know what they’re doing. They’ve got the techniques, the strategies, all those things down. It’s strictly an enrollment issue.”
Last fall, Boyd drafted a recommendation to the TSSAA that Division II athletics be split into three classifications, similarly to football, on the basis of enrollment figures. Once that recommendation was rejected, Zion Christian began to consider other options.
With a reported enrollment of 123 in grades 9-12 for the most recent TSSAA classification period, Zion Christian is the second-smallest Division II-A school that sponsors football and one of the 20 smallest schools in the organization.
“We’ve had some good years in volleyball, some good years in softball, cross country. Football and basketball, those are the ones we’ve struggled in,” said Russ Adcox, a longtime softball assistant who led the Lady Eagles to within a win of the DII-A state tournament this spring.
“I think the school is evaluating what’s best for the athletic program overall. We support the school’s decision. I think all they’re trying to get into a fair, competitive situation where we’re competing more with schools our size. We had a really good season, but most of the schools in our district are twice our size.”
For the previous two years, Zion Christian played a non-region schedule in football – winning four games in both 2019 and 2020. The Eagles will continue to play TSSAA opponents on the gridiron, as the TSIAA only sponsors eight-man football.
“I can’t speak for the whole athletic department, but as far as football, I think it gives us an opportunity to build some confidence, with me coming in and almost starting the program from almost scratch,” said Jeff Jordan, hired earlier this month to succeed Brad Lowery at the helm of the program after four years.
“I know Coach Lowery did a lot of great things. There’s a good foundation there. It’s really just building out this program to where it should be. This allows us to build some confidence, build numbers up on the football team and get back to where we should be, to where we can get back and compete with some teams.”
Jarvis anticipates an accompanying boost in athletic morale and in enrollment with the upcoming move.
“I think, frankly, virtually all our sports are going to benefit from it,” he said. “After football, of course, basketball’s probably second in terms of crowd size, community involvement and so forth, but I think we’re really going to see it across the board.
“We’ve got some momentum for the school in terms of – we’re going to grow from this current year to this next year in terms of enrollment. That’s (kindergarten through 12th grade), but our high school enrollment is going to grow as well. It really came down to what’s best for the kids. We think the Lord is going to continue to do some positive things here, and our intention is to get back into the TSSAA at some point, when we’re just a little bit better positioned to give our kids an opportunity for success.”
Bernard Childress, executive director of the TSSAA, confirmed that Zion Christian’s request to withdraw from the organization has been received and that he and Boyd have discussed the move.
“I’ll let (the Board of Control) know that the school has requested to withdraw from the association,” he said. “The Board doesn’t have to approve it. I just try to keep them updated. It will be on the June (meeting) agenda.
“I talked to Derek and told him … ‘if and when you decide to come back, you’ll come back as an affiliate member, if the board accepts you, for one year’. You have all the rights of any member, but for a year, you can’t be in any postseason tournament in any sport.”
In addition to eight-man football, the TSIAA – known before September 2020 as the Middle Tennessee Athletic Conference – also sanctions championships in volleyball, cross country, boys and girls basketball, boys soccer, baseball, softball and golf.
According to John Horner, president of the TSIAA board, roughly 25 schools compete in at least one of the association’s sanctioned sports.
“The TSIAA is a small entity with schools, numbers-wise,” he said. “You’re looking at maybe 150 kids in a high school or less. The TSSAA is not formed to fit these small schools.”
TSIAA guidelines may also help Zion Christian address its numbers, athletically speaking, in a quicker manner.
“You may have a kid that’s third- or fourth-string playing at a (TSSAA Class) 6A school, who may be able to get playing time at a smaller school,” Horner said. “That’s kind of one of the unique things that we have in our association. Unless you play in the association, we give a two-week ‘sit-out’ before you’re eligible to be able to participate as long as it’s board approved. A public school student, we’d ask them to sit out two weeks, for any student that’s not affiliated with our conference.
“You want to give kids an opportunity, but you don’t want schools to build ‘super teams’. We’re not trying to compete with the ‘big boys’. We’re trying to give kids an opportunity to play, as long as it’s within the confines of the rules that we offer.”
Other TSIAA participants include Academy of God, Clarksville Christian, Franklin Christian, Franklin Classical, Franklin Road Christian, Highland Rim Academy, F.H. Jenkins Prep, Lancaster Christian, Riverside Christian and South Haven.
Jarvis views the decision as a chance to “reframe and refocus” while continuing to grow the school in general and the athletic department in particular.
“In the time I’ve been here, I’ve added some members of the administrative team that I rely on for a variety of things,” he said. “One of the fruits that’s coming from that is our enrollment. We’ve got a director of advancement (T.J. Derrick) and a marketing director (Brandyn Surratt), two individuals that are doing tremendous work in terms of spreading the name of Zion Christian.
“One of the things I heard when I first move here was, Zion Christian is the best-kept secret in Maury County. That sounds cute, but that’s not what I want to be. We’re getting our name out, we’re investing in some things to just make people are of who we are as a school. So this is not focused strictly on the high school. We’re making efforts to address a number of things for the whole K-12 program.”
And even as he hesitates to call the most recent decision “a step back”, Jarvis admits a return to the TSSAA is the likely objective.
“I don’t think it’s a step back at all,” he said. “I understand how that perception can be out there. I’m all for doing whatever I think’s in the best interest of our student-athletes. That’s what this is.
“(The TSSAA) is the primary state association. Obviously we’re aware of that. What we have going on here, I think the next five-to-seven years people are going to see some really impressive things happen here. We’ve got space to grow, we’ve got a strategic plan in the works. With the growth of Maury County and what’s happening down here, this is an exciting time for Zion Christian.
“I do see a scenario (where we’d return), if the Lord so moves. It could be in two years, could be in four. We’ve not set a tangible target, but we’ve been generally in that two- to four-year timeframe in terms of seeing how the Lord works.”