PICTURED: GCA quarterback Austin Amor
By CHIP CIRILLO
Five years ago, Grace Christian Academy’s football field was a cow pasture in Leiper’s Fork.
Four years ago, the Lions were playing eight-man football in a Christian league.
On Friday night, GCA (5-4) will make its first appearance in the Class 1A playoffs at Wayne County (7-3).
The school with an enrollment 190 of has come a long way in a short time.
“Yeah, it’s really exciting right now,” GCA coach Rusty Smith said. “I’m fired up for these kids. There are a lot of seniors on this team that have been here since the beginning, so it’s really cool to see where they’ve come from.”
The Lions went 3-7 during their first full season in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association in 2015 and 2-7 the following year before turning the corner this season.
“It was tough at first, but those boys did a great job learning fast and learning on the fly,” said Smith, a third-year head coach. “But I do think that our program is on the rise, for sure, and I like where it’s going.”
GCA started slowly this year, losing three of its first four games. But the Lions won four of their last five, earning a playoff spot with a 28-14 win over Fayetteville in last Friday’s regular-season finale.
“I think that just a sense of urgency from the seniors kind of rallied (everyone) together and saying, ‘Look, this is getting toward the end. We’re going to have to win some football games if we want to keep playing,’” Smith said. “The attitude at practice has changed, the attitude in the locker room has changed, the attitude on game nights has changed. After we lost to Richland that kind of woke some of our guys up a little bit.”
Over half (15) of the Lions’ 29-man roster are seniors. The first graduating class for the new school was two years ago.
The enrollment is so small the Lions don’t have enough players for a junior varsity team.
Senior Austin Amor (5-10, 175), a dual-threat quarterback, accounts for 70 percent of GCA’s offense.
He’s passed for 1,221 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 963 yards and 20 TDs out of the spread offense.
“It’s been awesome to be able to coach a kid like him, as dynamic as he is,” Smith said. “He was the offensive player of the year for our region last year. A lot of times he has carried us on his back, but then he has also learned that sometimes the defense will key on him and he has to be able to rely on his teammates.”
Amor is being coached by an expert, considering Smith was the 2007 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year at Florida Atlantic as a sophomore when he passed for 3,668 yards and 32 TDs.
He led the Owls to their first bowl appearance that season, culminating in a win over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl where Smith was named Most Valuable Player.
Smith played for Howard Schnellenberger, who coached plenty of great quarterbacks, including Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Steve Walsh.
“Those guys came around, so I was able to talk with Bernie Kosar multiple times and talk to Jim Kelly and got a personal relationship with Steve Walsh,” Smith said. “People don’t know this, but the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins – he was the offensive coordinator for them. He has an offensive mind.”
After becoming the first Florida Atlantic player to be drafted by the NFL in 2010, Smith played for the Titans as a backup for four years.
Smith’s first year at Florida Atlantic in 2005 was its first season in NCAA Division I football.
That start-up experience has helped him in starting GCA in the TSSAA.
“We were sold on a dream,” Smith said of Florida Atlantic. “We were sold on coming there to lay the foundation. Those are the same things that we’re preaching to our kids right now.
“They don’t have a stadium that the future kids will have in 10 or 15 years. That’s the same thing that they told us. We were playing on a high school field when I was in college.”
Today, Florida Atlantic has a 35,000-seat stadium that Smith never played in, but he quarterbacked the teams that laid the foundation.
GCA just got it first bleachers this year. A lot of fans watch the games from their tailgates.
“I firmly believe that in the future we will have an athletic facility that will rival any private school in the area,” Smith said.
There were no lights on GCA’s field the first two seasons and Smith remembers renting light sticks and smelling diesel fumes during the games.
Senior Kolby Alonzo, a small-school prospect, leads the Lions with over 600 receiving yards and five TDs. The speedy receiver had over 1,000 yards last season.
Defensive lineman Oliver Hunter boasts a team-high 68.5 tackles. Safety Jake Bogsinger is second in tackles and linebacker Caleb Fish is third.
Wayne County made it all the way to the state semifinals last season after going to the quarterfinals the previous year, so GCA faces a tough challenge in its playoff debut.
“Early on in the season their quarterback got hurt, but the kid that has stepped in has done a great job for them,” Smith said. “I would honestly say they’re a complete football team. They get after it on defense and they run the ball really well on offense.”