If Gene Harper is not bouncing from room to room around the GICAA’s newest office in Cumming meeting with the league’s five-member staff each morning, he’s talking to a coach on his cell phone one minute and texting an athletic director the next before leaving to meet with a potential sponsor.
“You have to have a strategy and you have to implement the strategy,“ he stops long enough to say while continuing to work his vision and mission.
Before the day is through, the Eatonton native, who is three decades removed from being a tackle at Georgia Tech and Presbyterian College, will visit one school this afternoon before heading to another tonight.
It’s just a day in the life of the Executive Director of the Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association, the newest and — to the surprise of many — will soon become the second largest high school organization in the state for athletics.
The league, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary at the end of January, has experienced unprecedented growth, swelling to 75 schools in a year.
The latest to join was Covenant Academy in Macon earlier this month as the league reached 76 interscholastic members with more on the way.
Back in November, Sherwood Christian Academy bolted from the GISA to the GICAA, becoming yet another school to leave the quickly dissipating GISA, which lost three key members of its organization — Tattnall Square, Stratford Academy and Mount de Sales — to the GHSA last year.
“We’re taking this as an opportunity to get on the ground floor of a new organization and be able to grow with them,” Sherwood Athletic Director Eddie Dixon said after the school announced the change in organizations, which will begin this fall for the Eagles. “It’s mostly a numbers thing with us. When you play against schools with larger enrollments, it beats you down.”
The GISA currently has 81 interscholastic members for the 2013-14 athletic year, but GISA officials expect that number to drop to around 60 in the fall.
The GICAA has already set itself apart from the competition in more ways than one.
“The primary message here is … we look at ourselves as being of service to the school — what do the schools need to make themselves a better school?,” GICAA President and founder Todd Hannon said. “Then we work our best to make that happen for that particular school.”
It is a message quickly resonating within faith-based school communities throughout the state.
“The league has been a godsend for us,“ Trinity Christian (Statesboro) athletic director Phil Mullinax said. “Being in this league has really brought more excitement and passion to our students and parents.“
The league prides itself on, as Hannon likes to call it, “solid competition within the rules of fair play and sportsmanship on a level playing field.”
Through its approach, the GICAA believes, the positive attributes — discipline, team work and sportsmanship — that have traditionally been what the better side of sport is about are allowed to flourish and help students and schools alike thrive.
Case in point: In the 17 years prior to joining the GICAA, Trinity Christian won a total of seven trophies, mostly when it played in a now defunct league.
“We have already won more trophies since August than we have in 16 years,“ Mullinax said, rattling off a list of runner-up and championship finishes eight trophies long, some varsity and others junior varsity, his school has earned in region and state competitions since joining the league. “It has really made a big impact as far as school spirit.“
Gary Bennett, the Headmaster at Horizion Christian Academy in Cumming, has also been impressed with the league’s message from day one.
“For us it was about quality competition with like-minded Christian schools whose mission statements are similar to ours,“ said Bennett. “One of the main differences they offered was quality opponents within driving distance.“
Bennett, however, has been just as impressed, if not more impressed, with the league’s presence.
“What I have been impressed with is within a year every member on the staff has spent time on our campus,“ he said. “I haven’t seen that matched by any other league.“
Hannon and his organization call it building relationships. It is one of the league’s cornerstones.
“The relationships are built one at a time on a first-name basis — via e-mails, phone calls, visits and texts,“ GICAA Director of Operations Debbie Holtzclaw said. “Sometimes I get texts 10 at night.“
Harper noted the difference between healthy rivalries and unhealthy rivalries is that, “healthy rivalries are made between friends.”
That’s something the league strives to build.
“Unhealthy rivalries tear apart leagues,“ added Hannon. “Healthy rivalries build them up.”
It all fits into the GICAA’s vision of, “A league of the schools, by the schools and for the schools.”
Mullinax, who went to the GICAA’s original meeting, now sits on the rules committee. Member schools have written the league’s original rule book for each sport.
Furthermore, a committee of league members in each sport evaluates and amends rules as needed at the end of each season. During the season a panel of peers from another region hears and rules on appeals much like an arbitrator.
“We are just here to enforce what the members want,“ GICAA general manager Doug Wasden noted.
Members can also add sports or other competitions outside of sports if they wish.
Plans are already in the works to expand literary competitions — which currently include one-act plays, drama, debate. The league is exploring adding statewide robotics and mathematics competitions as well.
The GICAA is just as noted for its diversity within the sports arena, too.
Wasden, the league’s original executive director who made most of the initial trips with Hannon to schools throughout the state between the end of March and the end of June, explains: “Todd and I were sitting down and talking one day and it’s sort of like we’re going to try to create a super conference — like the NCAA.“
What their vision became:
• GICAA Division I teams consist of traditional five-day-a-week schools that draw all of their students from campus. Furthermore, those schools are subdivided into classifications based on school enrollment so there can be a level playing field for state competitions before further being broken down into geographic regions for the most convenient day-to-day travel assignments.
• GICAA Division II teams consist of small traditional and non-traditional schools that draw most of their students from campus but have the option of rounding out rosters with a few home-school students. They, too, will be subdivided into classifications based on school enrollment so there can be a level playing field for state competitions before further being broken down into geographic regions for the most convenient day-to-day travel assignments.
• GICAA Division III teams consist of non-traditional schools and/or student groups that can be entirely comprised of homeschool students. They, too, will play for their own state championship so they, too, can have a level playing field.
Hannon pointed out Division I and Division II schools play for state championships in their classification within each division, thus resulting in numerous state champions each year in a given sport, while Division III schools also have their own state championship.
“That is unprecedented,“ said Hannon. “No one, to our knowledge, has ever done anything like that before in this state.“
To which Wasden added: “That’s the beauty of our organization compared to most others — we just wanted to find homes for everybody.“
Hannon and his staff aren’t done either.
“We’re fixing to add a middle school league,“ Harper said.
With the boom in private and Christian-based schools during the past decade, the GICAA’s timing couldn’t be better.
“An example of this is when I was the head football coach and Assistant Headmaster at the Gatewood School last year,“ said Harper. “Covington is about 38 miles from Eatonton, and Covington Academy, Providence-Oxford, Peachtree Academy, Alpha and Omega and Woodley are five schools in Covington I have never heard of before, and I’ve been in Eatonton 38 miles away all these years and I never heard of them — they are everywhere like that.”
None of this surprises Hannon.
“I’m very happy it grew as fast as it did, but I guess I’m not overly surprised because I thought there was a tremendous need,” he said of the GICAA and the void it has filled in a state where many other private school and faith-based leagues have been in steady decline, some even to the point of folding, during the past decade.
How big the GICAA will grow from here is anybody’s guess. Harper conservatively estimates 125 schools in two years.
“Schools know this organization will help them become a better school, and we know the schools will help us become a better organization,“ said Harper, who keeps league costs down for member schools by seeking corporate and founding-member sponsors. “It’s a win-win.“
Hannon is much bolder in his predictions.
“My firm belief is I think there should be a public school league and a private/faith-based school league,“ the Wisconsin native said. “I think we can easily have 200 schools in this league … after all, other states have private school leagues just as relevant as the public school leagues.”