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Friendship to move to Division II next year
Oct 19, 2012 12:00 am
Rivalry with Watertown likely over
By ANDY REED
After winning three Division I state championships last year [and aiming for repeats in 2012-13], Friendship Christian will move into a new world to conquer next school year - Division II.
FCS officials have notified TSSAA of its intent to play the next four years in Division II, where schools can offer financial aid to student-athletes.
"We have asked questions, sought answers, and listened intently to educate ourselves to make this decision and feel strongly that this is the right choice for our school at this time," FCS president Jon Shoulders said in a press release Wednesday. "We want to be competitive in athletics and have recently achieved noted success. We are very proud of our state championships in various sports; but our commitment remains unwavering to educate our students, mind, body and soul.
"The FCS Board of Directors, administration, coaching staff and entire faculty all agree that it is our utmost priority to hold in highest regard the mission of our school. This decision is in support of our mission to provide an excellent education in a Christian environment to our growing student body.”
Since Division II was created in 1997, Friendship had remained in D-I with longstanding rivals Watertown, Gordonsville and Trousdale County. But the private school could not offer need-based financial aid to athletes. Mt. Juliet Christian made a similar move to D-II four years ago.
"We truly believe that choice matters," Shoulders said. "We want to offer the opportunity to all who desire a Christian education the choice to be part of the FCS experience and pursue their academic, spiritual and athletic aspirations.
“This division will offer great competition with schools similar in size and in purpose. We will join other regional Tennessee area schools participating in Division II-A."
The move effectively ends the longstanding rivalry with Watertown. The Purple Tigers dominated the early years of the football series before the Commanders turned the tables in the late 1980s. As the years progressed, Friendship became stronger and stronger in all sports, though Trousdale County and Gordonsville kept the Commanders from dominating in football and Gordonsville in basketball. But in other areas, particularly spring-based sports like baseball and softball, the other District 8-A teams [all public schools] had put up only token opposition in most cases in recent decades as FCS became a state power.
"To be honest, I'm glad they're going," Watertown football coach/athletic director Gavin Webster said. "Playing fields aren't even... It's hard to compete with a school that won [three] championships last year and may win two more this year.
"The rivalry was a good rivalry for a while... It was a good rivalry for the fans. They turned out at both Friendship and Watertown, had good crowds. That will be missed."
Though FCS will likely lose its area public-school rivals, it has already been placed in the East-Middle Region with Nashville-area schools such as Donelson Christian, Ezell-Harding and Franklin Road Academy, which have been on and off FCS schedules since its 1973 opening. It will also renew the dormant series with Mt. Juliet Christian.
"It was always fun for our kids," longtime MJCA athletic director/boys' basketball coach Paul Christensen said of when his Saints faced Friendship in District 8-A. "They got to compete, in many cases, with their friends and people they know. DCA is the same way with us. It always brings good atmosphere to the games."
MJCA is the second smallest football-playing school in TSSAA. But with the exception of football, the school has generally been more competitive and posted better won-loss records since returning to D-II in 2009.
"In a lot of sports, we complete well with all of them," said Christensen, "Football is just a different animal altogether. We're struggling to grow.
"Our experience in Division II, the high end of Division II teams are better than the high end of Division I. But the lower end of Division I is better than the lower end of Division II. There's more parity in Division I. It's been a great experience for us."
While the Division I districts and regions for the next four years won't be finalized until the middle of next month, D-II is already set. Christensen said one benefit of the smaller division is schools have more influence concerning their division with the state's high school sports governing body.
Friendship is essentially replacing Jackson Christian in D-II as JCS has returned to Division I. It is the only West Tennessee private school to play in the public-school division. The remaining DII-AA schools are in the West Region.
The remainder of the AA schools are in the East-Middle Region, divided into two districts.
In District 1, Christensen said Friendship will join MJCA, DCA, Ezell-Harding, Knoxville Webb, St. Andrew's-Sewanee and King's Academy. Not all schools play football and some are playing eight-man football outside of TSSAA. King's has not participated in the playoff series, but will do so next year.
In District 2 will be Davidson Academy, Franklin Road Academy, University School of Nashville, Zion Christian, Bell Buckle Webb, St. Cecilia, Riverside Christian and Battle Ground Academy.
Davidson, now coached by former Watertown coach Bill Alexander, won back-to-back D-II championships a few years ago, but lost to Friendship in both regular seasons. BGA and FRA were with Friendship in the old Region 5-A in the 1990s before BGA went to D-II when it was created. BGA has competed with the larger Brentwood Academy, Father Ryan and Montgomery Bell Academy but will drop down to Class AA next year. St. Cecilia is an all-girls school.
"We were in their league [all-private region] for eight years," Friendship football coach/baseball coach/athletic director John McNeal said. "There are still rivalries there. It's a new challenge. We feel it's going to benefit and help us in a lot of ways.
"We've been very competitive with both sides. Our schedule will be very tough."
"Friendship is going to compete in Division II just fine," Christensen said. "They're used to playing high-level competition.
"It's not going to be any less competitive on the high level. They're going to be challenged well.'
A remaining issue is travel. Short trips to Watertown, Gordonsville and Hartsville will be replaced by longer ones to Knoxville.
"The travel is overrated," Christensen said. "It's not as bad as you may think. Football is every other year. In basketball, we'll stay overnight, play King's one night and Knoxville Webb the next and knock them out.
"It's not like playing Watertown and Gordonsville, but it's not as bad as you might think."
McNeal said outside the trips to the Knoxville area, the remainder of the schedule will probably be shorter than Region 4-A trips to Pickett County, Jackson County and Monterey.
"Webb and King's Academy, we have one home and one away," McNeal said. "Outside of that, they're all very close."
McNeal admitted there is some anxiety about leaving the familiar for the unknown.
"It's new to us and anything new or different can have a little anxiety," he said. "You haven't done it, haven't experienced it."
But McNeal echoed Shoulders' statement that FCS Nation is all-in for the move.
"We were 100 percent altogether on this," said McNeal, the face of FCS athletics who has been with the school, with the exception of a three-year stint at Goodpasture, since 1986. "It would be different if 80 percent was for it and 20 percent was against it. But it's not that way."
District 9-AAA could remain the same
If District 9-AAA is broken up, it won't be because of greatly shifting enrollment by its member schools, according to figures released by the TSSAA Wednesday.
All eight schools will remain in Class AAA. The only changes are in football, where Beech and Station Camp will move up to 6A for the playoffs, joining Lebanon, Wilson Central and Mt. Juliet.
In District 8-A and Region 4-A, Watertown, Trousdale County and Jackson County will remain in 2A for the football playoffs while Monterey, Gordonsville, Clay County, Pickett County and Red Boiling Springs will stay in 1A, which could keep that football region the same except for Friendship's departure.
In all cases, shuffling in other parts of the state could create a domino effect here.
Schools lower than Class AAA have until next Wednesday to declare if they want to move up.
After that, the TSSAA staff will prepare districts and regions for all sports to present to the Board of Control, which will meet Nov. 15 to formally set the D-I leagues for the next four years.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952, ext. 17; or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org