Lots of changes have come for Grace Christian this year. Athletic director Jeff Cross took the full-time reigns. Not long after, the entire core of the athletic department — and academic department — saw even more changes.
Earlier this month, the Grace Christian school board voted to move the Crusaders from the Association of Christian Schools International to the Illinois High School Association, effective at the start of the 2020-21 school year.
“We talked about it at the beginning of last school year, when the IHSA sent us forms asking if we wanted to renew as a recognized member or become a full-fledged member,” Cross said. “We had to meet some state requirements, but once that got done, we talked at least once a week about where we were at, what we thought, seeing how it would affect everyone.”
Cross said there will be differences, particularly in schedules and opponents, but the newness and positives the change brings significantly outweighs anyone who might yearn for yesteryear.
“I’m juiced for our kids, and I tell all of our kids who say, ‘But Coach, we’ve always done this; we’ve always gone to that tournament,’ that they have the opportunity to be the first class to be the potential regional champions in our school,” Cross said. “If they move on in a super-sectional, they can have the opportunity to play in a college facility. They’ve never had that chance before in the association we are in now.”
Athletically, one of the next hoops to jump through for Cross will be finding a conference to join, something that is made a bit more challenging by the school not having a football team. But Cross already has an idea in mind.
“One conference that comes to mind is the River Valley Conference,” Cross said, a conference that hosts local schools Beecher, Donovan, Gardner-South Wilmington, Grant Park, St. Anne and Tri-Point. “We are playing 80 percent of those schools already in one sport or all sports.
“We want to be recognized as someone in a reputable conference with the same goals for their student-athletes as we [have].”
Head of school Aaron Most was as on-board as Cross was when the move first was brought up. He said the biggest reason for the excitement behind the change is the opportunity for greater success.
“That [IHSA] model fits in with what we’re about as a school,” Most said. “We have the opportunity to choose what the point is for us to be on this side and think through what we’re trying to do with our students, what will ultimately make them successful.
“It’s not a banner on the wall; it’s not so much grades— it’s teaching them to be successful and giving them broad shoulders that can handle responsibility.”
And under the IHSA, Most said those opportunities will be afforded to more students than those who toe the line in the athletic arena, as the IHSA also will open more academic doors, whether it be in band, choir and orchestra competitions or in academic endeavors such as chess club and scholastic bowl.
“Athletically, we wanted to get into something that would give us the next level of rigor,” Most said. “But more importantly, our fine arts department has just exploded over the last several years.
“The next step for our department was teaching them musicianship, and, in order to do that, we have to give them opportunities to do individual competition,” he added. “To give them the opportunity to compete in solo and ensemble, or academically, to have chess and scholastic bowl, it just opens up everything to us.”
Luckily for Most, Cross and the rest of the Grace Christian body, they knew just the man to help them transition, and he was in the school’s own band room. Band director Steve Betz is a member of the IHSA board, which Most said helped things even more.
“In thinking through what the next level was for our band, choir and orchestra, the next level was to be able to send them somewhere to compete,” Most said. “He came and said, ‘I would like to go to IESA, IHSA,’ and I was sitting here thinking, ‘Well, yeah, that’s what I want you to do, too.”
Before the Crusaders move the high school athletic department to the IHSA next fall, the elementary school will transition to the Illinois Elementary School Association this school year, a move Most believes will ease the high school transition.
“When you do it at the junior high level, it sets the tone for the culture,” Most said. “It’s a long-term investment, but it shows who we’re going to be in three or four years.”
For Cross, the change to the IESA arguably has been the busier one, as the athletic calendar at the IESA is a little different from the IHSA. For example, baseball, which Cross coaches at the high school level and will coach at the junior high level, runs in the spring for high school and fall for elementary school.
Most again pointed to increased opportunity, as the school will have separate programs for the elementary population, rather than those younger kids being forced to play on the junior varsity high school level.
“The IESA is probably the even greater switch than IHSA because all of the sports seasons will be swapped around.” Most said. “We’ve never had a junior high baseball and softball team, so that again affords us the opportunity.”
While the general consensus between students, staff and parents is excitement as the school moves in a new direction, Cross said that excitement will be mixed with some nerves.
“I would call it a nervous excitement,” Cross said. “We’re taking a step we’ve been working on for a year, and my guess is that some people have thought about it for more than a year.
“And now we’re doing it.”