Ambitious Eastern Christian Academy football program struggling to get off the ground
By Steve Yanda and Paul Tenorio,
Early this year, a construction company owner named David Sills IV conceived a plan aimed to help high school football players who were looking to raise their profiles among college recruiters.
Sills persuaded 46 such players to leave their high schools and play together under the name Eastern Christian Academy, based in Elkton, Md. Lacking any traditional school components, such as a building or full-time faculty, Sills partnered with National Connections, a nationally accredited online institution, to design and administer courses for the students.
But what began as an ambitious experiment has struggled to get off the ground. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association has refused to sanction Eastern Christian. And without such status, the Honey Badgers have seen five of their eight opponents cancel their scheduled games.
Friday night’s game at Archbishop Spalding could very well be Eastern Christian’s last, and the players who sought a bigger stage could spend the rest of the fall with nowhere to play.
“Most definitely I’m concerned,” Eastern Christian Coach Dwayne Thomas said. “I don’t care too much about state championships. What I care about is kids getting an opportunity to get college scholarship dollars. Because if somebody doesn’t pay for them to go to college, they probably aren’t going to go.”
Eight Honey Badgers have made oral commitments to Division I schools, including defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow (Southern California) and offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers (Southern California), who are among the top-rated recruits in the country, and Sills’s son and the team’s junior quarterback, David Sills V. Many of Eastern Christian’s other players shared such ambitions, but with no way to showcase their talents, those dreams may not materialize.
Over the past decade, Sills had bankrolled an overhaul of the athletics facilities at Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, Del. But administrators at that school became concerned that the football program was gaining too much influence, and the two sides parted ways last year. That led Sills to create Eastern Christian.
One of the first steps to establishing the football program was to gain approval from the MPSSAA. On Feb. 16, Nikki Francis, a National Connections paralegal, submitted Eastern Christian’s application to be approved by the MPSSAA as a non-member. In making its application, Eastern Christian agreed to abide by MPSSAA’s bylaws and Francis was told the school would appear on the non-member approved list by July.
With that understanding, Thomas began formulating a schedule for the football team’s 2012 season.
“If you look at the application process, there is no opportunity to deny anybody,” Thomas said. “It just asks you, ‘Are you going to follow these particular rules?’ and then you sign it.”
But on July 19, National Connections headmaster Steven Guttentag copied Sills on an e-mail in which Guttentag wrote that MPSSAA Executive Director Ned Sparks was planning to deny Eastern Christian’s application.
In the e-mail, a copy of which Sills provided to The Post, Guttentag wrote that Sparks “didn’t ask me any questions about the football program or how it was organized or the school but proceeded to tell me he had ‘heard things,’ it was a ‘sham’ and he didn’t want us playing his schools in Maryland. I asked under what specific criteria he was denying our approval and he said it was a combination of things but he would not give me any specifics, he just repeated it is a sham.”
On Aug. 9, the MPSSAA sent National Connections a letter stating the school had not been sanctioned.
Sparks did not respond to numerous attempts to be interviewed for this story. Maryland Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard said: “The Maryland State Department of Education has real concerns with the situation regarding the Eastern Christian football club. National Connections Academy has a strong academic program, but has never had an athletics program before. It has no facility, no athletic director, and no track record in athletics.”
Status: It’s complicated
On Aug. 17, the Honey Badgers opened the season with a 39-35 victory over Strom Thurmond High School in South Carolina. A week later, they trounced Niagara Academy in Ontario, Canada, 62-3.
Then Sports Illustrated, in its Aug. 27 issue, detailed the program’s unusual situation in a story entitled, “High school football’s virtual powerhouse.” The story revealed that Eastern Christian had not been approved by MPSSAA, and once that status became known, opponents began to reconsider their plans to play the Honey Badgers.
On Aug. 29, Guttentag and a National Connections attorney met with Sparks and a representative from the Maryland attorney general’s office. Multiple sources familiar with the meeting said the MPSSAA’s specific concerns included: the suspicion that none of Eastern Christian’s players lived in Maryland; the fact that Sills, not National Connections, had assembled Eastern Christian’s coaching staff; and skepticism over whether Eastern Christian’s players were fully adhering to National Connections’ online curriculum.
The MPSSAA informed National Connections it could re-submit its application for non-member approval after demonstrating more control over Eastern Christian.
Guttentag said the school will not do that this fall, but he was adamant there has been no indication of any wrongdoing by Eastern Christian.
“The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and [Ned] Sparks had a bias against this team and avoided the issue,” Guttentag said. “If they had come to us and said, ‘We know this is different. Let’s figure out a way to make this work,’ in February . . . that would have been the fair way to do this, and I think we could have figured it out together.”
Sills said he plans to get Eastern Christian Academy licensed as a school next year, which will make it more difficult for the MPSSAA to deny their non-approved member status.
“Instead of Connections being the school next year, we will be the school and they will be the academic provider,” Sills said. “But it’s the same exact relationship, only the kids would be getting an Eastern Christian diploma instead of a National Connections diploma.”
Looking to the future
Jacob Atkinson left his home town of Lewes, Del., following his freshman year of high school and transferred to Eastern Christian. Like many of his teammates, he sought the type of exposure he likely would not have received had he remained at Cape Henlopen High.
More than a month into his sophomore football season, Atkinson, a linebacker, said in a phone interview that interest in him from college coaches has not increased noticeably. Asked whether that might change in the spring, Atkinson said, “Hopefully.”
An ACC assistant coach, who has recruited in Maryland and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said Eastern Christian’s paucity of games this season likely would affect players such as Atkinson, who are not on the radar of many, if any, college programs.
Eastern Christian scrimmaged Don Bosco Prep (N.J.), a nationally renowned high school football program, on Sept. 1. Other than that, the Honey Badgers’ playing experience has been limited to practice the past four weeks, and after Friday’s game at Spalding, the schedule is completely vacant.
For the players who saw Eastern Christian as a more direct route to a college scholarship, that’s a daunting prospect.
Said the ACC assistant: “Unless a kid attended your football camp in the summer and you watched him run and move around, if he didn’t do that, it would be hard . . . to say, ‘Hey, let’s move forward with this kid,’ when you haven’t seen him play a down of football.”