Bishop McNamara, Grace Christian bring in familiar faces as new athletic directors

Jeff Cross preps the field at Grace Christian Academy before a game in 2018. Cross, the school’s baseball coach, also will serve as the full-time athletic director.

Every school year, 24 area schools compete in 24 sports, almost always seamlessly, thanks to athletic directors who put in hundreds of hours per year that are not always seen.

For two of those 24 local schools, there will be new unsung heroes at the helm.

At Bishop McNamara, Aaron Hamilton took over at the beginning of the month, replacing John Rutter, who left the Irish to take the same position at Rosary High School in Aurora.

Hamilton spent the past 15 years at Crescent City Grade School, 14 of those as athletic director. Before that, the Western Illinois University graduate was the athletic director at Fisher High School for three years.

His daughter, Madison, will be a junior student at McNamara, and it was having his daughter at the school that made Hamilton aware of the open position after Rutter announced he was leaving in April.

“She competes in [cross country and track and field] here and loves it here,” Hamilton said. “When the opportunity came up and I saw the ad for it, I thought, ‘What better opportunity than with the family atmosphere and tradition?’”

Principal Terry Granger said he saw Hamilton’s passion, dedication and organization — three necessary traits for any athletic director — after Hamilton picked up assistant coaching at the school’s junior high level.

“I think he understood what we stand for and developed that passion we were looking for,” Granger said. “Based on the people that have known Aaron through his career, organization is a big part of his job, and we were convinced that he has that ability to be organized, to maintain the organizational skills you need in this position, from referees, to buses, to budgets.”

After a decade and a half away from working with the Illinois High School Association, Hamilton said he hopes to build relationships with those in the IHSA the same way he was able to at the Illinois Elementary School Association level.

“I was at the IESA realm for so long, I could pick up the phone, and they’d know me on a first-name basis,” Hamilton said. “[In the IHSA], here are more sports, more activities, more coaches, so it’s a bigger picture than when I was at the junior high level, but I’m looking forward to making those changes and stepping up.”

Although the responsibilities are increased at the high school level, especially with the Irish adding a bowling program this year and joining a plethora of area schools that co-op with Kankakee for swimming, Hamilton said long-time McNamara employees such as Granger and football coach Rich Zinanni, who once was the school’s athletic director himself, will help ease that transition.

“Those guys are going to be crucial giving me their knowledge, and, hopefully, I can give them some knowledge in return,” Hamilton said. “With Coach Zinanni being on staff for so long, the things he’s experienced, you can’t ask for more than that.”

Granger is excited for the change that lies ahead at McNamara, but Rutter’s departure meant a close personal friend of his no longer will share the same work space as him.

“We grew to be good friends — we did a lot of things together, went to every football game together, went to White Sox games together,” Granger said. “To be honest, when we hired John, we were looking to get two years out of him, and we got six.

“He did a tremendous job for our program, but things change, and we’ll move forward with those changes.”

Cross handed the keys

At Grace Christian, Cross began his transition to his new role a year ago. Former athletic director Nate Brown, who is now the sports information director at Olivet Nazarene University, transitioned out as Cross dipped his toes in the water.

But this year, it’s all Cross all the time in the athletic director role.

“I’m a familiar face in this school with students, with teachers, with parents, so it was an easy transition,” Cross said. “Nate did an excellent job, and if I can do it half as well as he did, it will be a success.”

To say Cross is a familiar face might be an understatement, as he has been involved with the school and athletic program for 15 years. But it wasn’t until the 2018-19 school year he began as a paid employee.

“I remember reading in a book that if you want to work for a company bad enough, you’ll work for free for three months, and if you can do that job in three months, they’ll hire you,” Cross said. “It took me 15 years and not three months, but that’s alright — I’m invested in this school.”

Brown and Cross got to know one another pretty well during the past three years, as Cross is the school’s baseball coach, and Brown was his assistant. Brown said that level of comfort not only eased the transition but also gave him peace of mind in passing the torch.

“We coached baseball together, [and] as a result, the transition was pretty smooth,” Brown said. “I knew that he would do what was right by the school, and he [has] felt comfortable asking me for help when he needed it.”

Cross is quite a busy man aside from his duties at Grace Christian. He also serves as an NCAA Division I women’s basketball official, which sometimes will mean multi-tasking and working from the road.

“You do stuff at midnight, you work from hotels, you find people within the school that can help on game days and make sure things go off,” Cross said. “The first thing Nate taught me, when I would be looking for people to run the concession stand or looking for referees, is that the most important thing is that the kids get to play the game.

“If we show up on a Monday with a game at 6 p.m. and there’s one person keeping gate, no concession stand, but there are two teams and a referee, the game will be played.”

At Grace, the athletic director is responsible for keeping things running smoothly not only at the high school level, but the middle school level as well. For Cross, making sure to communicate across all levels will be one of the more important tasks.

“Trying to keep elementary, junior high, junior varsity, high school, keeping that all going with one gym and figuring out bus rides, there’s so many levels of communication,” Cross said. “Even just making sure buses have gas — you don’t always think about that until it’s 2 p.m. and someone says, ‘The bus needs gas, and we leave in 30 minutes.’”

Just like any coach or athletic director, Cross wants to see his teams successful in competition. But for him, that’s not the most important goal he has.

“My ultimate goal is to create great adults through athletics,” Cross said. “When I interview coaches, talk to our staff, I don’t care if we go 0-20 or 20-0.

“When you see a kid walking around at the Bourbonnais Friendship Festival, I want someone to be able to say, ‘I know that kid goes to Grace.’”

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