Hoping For A League Of Their Own

Home-schooled athletes are forming teams outside public schools, which exclude them from participating

October 23, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

The final score read 70-0, and there was a consensus that it could've been a lot worse.

On one sideline was Riverdale Baptist High School's football team, celebrating a homecoming victory. A band played fight songs as cheerleaders kicked and balloons of yellow, blue and white - the school's colors - dangled in the wind.

On the other sideline were the Maryland Christian Saints, a first-year squad without a home field, band or even a school. The team consists mainly of athletes being home-schooled in Harford and Baltimore counties. Despite the drubbing, they gathered in a prayer thanking God and Jesus Christ for giving them the opportunity to play.

Undersized and undermanned, the Saints are the prototype of what the future might hold for home-schooled kids who have been thwarted in their efforts to join public school athletic teams. The Saints are the first of what they hope will someday be a thriving league of home-schooled athletes playing against each other as well as parochial schools.

For the time being, the Saints are in a league of one. They travel across the region, from Virginia to Philadelphia, taking a game against anyone who will play them - including some of the area's more formidable teams. So far this season, the results have been predictable. In eight games, the Saints have scored just 22 points and allowed 351. Their sole win was an 8-6 victory over Elkton Christian Academy.

But through the bruising hits and lopsided losses, players such as 16- year-old Jonathan Garcia of Havre de Grace remind themselves that they're working toward a bigger goal.

"Coach says we're trailblazers, and we're laying the ground for others," he said. "It's very hard, but even in those hard times, it's an opportunity to seek God out and give it your all."

Access to teams

In some areas of the country, home-schoolers have fought for access to public school teams or conferences. But not the Saints. They represent a growing contingent that seeks to establish its own specialty leagues, where students can thrive against similar competition and share in off-the-field pursuits, such as ministry work, which would not be allowed on public school teams.

That's largely a result of stifled efforts to allow home-schoolers to try out for public school teams. Three bills introduced to the General Assembly in the past five years were defeated after fierce opposition from state and local school boards that raised eligibility and equity questions. The governing body that oversees public school athletics does not even allow its teams to play against private schools that allow home-schoolers, prompting a discrimination lawsuit this year in Temple Hills.

"The very first criteria for representing a school on a school team, it seems to me, is that you go to the school," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "These are not teams that are made up of community members. These are teams that are represented by the youngsters that attend the school."

For the Saints, the issue of playing on or against public school teams is quickly becoming secondary. The local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a national ministry group, is working to set up more teams around the region that would include home-schoolers and students from private schools that do not have football programs. Eventually, they hope to have enough to compete for their own championship.

A Carroll County team already is taking form.

"Since public schools won't allow them to participate, we've got to take this route," said Eric Jorgensen, an Eldersburg pastor and assistant football coach at Carroll County's Liberty High School who will lead the new team.

They are using as their model Georgia, where eight teams of home-schooled students compete in the Georgia Football League. There is a playoff and championship game at the end of the season.

Steve Medinger, northern Maryland director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said a Maryland league would likely include private schools, and, possibly, public schools.

"When it comes to fighting to play public schools, I don't know that we really feel that's necessary yet," said Medinger. "In the meantime, I don't think we want to stay exclusive to home-schoolers. We like playing some of these other private schools."

The Saints' inaugural season started with a crack - as in 14-year-old quarterback Nick Pretty's voice, which broke as he called "heads" on the coin toss before the team's first game.

"They just saw a kid who's 5 [feet] 5, his voice is cracking, and they're thinking, `This is our competition?'" Pretty said over pizza at a team dinner.

There's no distinction between junior varsity and varsity for the Saints, who have fielded a team of just 17 players for most of the season. At any given time, football rules require 11 to be on each side of the ball, so many are pulling double-duty on offense and defense against more seasoned varsity squads.

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