Religion in Sports: Athletics boosts enrollment at private schools
When Brian Soukup started work at his school five years ago, he introduced himself as the boys basketball coach at Trinity.
He would then be asked, “Do you mean Trinity off Aloma?”
“No. Trinity in Deltona,” he would say.
Soukup would be met with blank stares and a quick reply: “Oh. Never heard of it.”
Today, people know about Deltona Trinity Christian Academy, and perhaps the biggest reason why is its improving athletics program. Soukup will be the first to admit athletics played a role in bringing his school more attention and helping boost its enrollment.
The same has happened at many private religious schools in the Central Florida area. It’s yet another clear indication of how religion and sports are becoming more intertwined. It also shows another side to the issue, one in which there are no conflicts with federal law. The remaining question is: should sports be used to better sell your message?
There is no doubt that a successful athletics program translates into a higher profile for a school, and a higher profile means increased enrollment.
Ultimately, religious schools are gaining financially from their sports programs.
“We’ve watched the school go from 393 kids to now 630 maxed out with a waiting list,” Soukup said. “Naturally, you give the school a lot of credit with what they did, but we all know the quickest way to grow a school is through a quality athletic program.”
Though all schools say that academics come first, it would be na�ve to think kids don’t look at athletics when making their private-school choice. It is easy to see who has the best athletic programs. Of the 27 FHSAA-member private religious high schools in Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties, 16 offer football, boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball. Nine of those schools have programs with 10 varsity sports or more.
“We don’t track that to know how many people have come because of athletics,” said Steve Whitaker, headmaster at The First Academy, which offers 15 varsity sports.
“But it has to be a byproduct of excellence because people view your school oftentimes through the lens of their opinion of your athletic teams. It may be the only thing they see about The First Academy. We understand that for better or for worse.”
Bishop Moore in Orlando is probably the most successful private religious school in the area, with 19 appearances in the state playoffs in baseball, six in football, 13 in boys basketball, nine in girls basketball and five in softball.
Trinity Prep, the Trinity on Aloma in Winter Park, is not far behind, with 18 appearances in the state playoffs in baseball, six in football, four in boys basketball, eight in girls basketball and 14 in softball — including the 2007 3A championship.
When Soukup arrived at Deltona Trinity Christian in 2003 as a volunteer coach, he was eager to help the athletics program boost its profile because the school wanted to focus on academic and spiritual growth first. He became athletic director the following year, the same year the school added football.
Since then, Deltona Trinity has renovated its gym and baseball field and is looking for a football facility. The football team made the Class 1B state semifinals this past season. Nearly all of the seniors came to the school after being somewhere else for ninth grade.
“Our football team was in the paper once or twice a week,” Soukup said. “You can’t put a price tag on what that does for Trinity.”
Indeed. Deltona Trinity has made the playoffs three times since it began play. Football has been a big boon for Pine Castle Christian as well. Since starting the program in 2005, PCC has made the playoffs twice.
“Whether it’s public or private, if you look at Florida State, you think of Bobby Bowden. People are not going to know the school president’s name outside of Tallahassee,” said PCC Athletic Director Mark Rickman, who is also the boys basketball coach. “A lot of people who come on campus see we won state championships, won big games. It’s definitely helped in the growth of the school.”
Trinity Prep, which goes from sixth to 12th grades, has 51athletic teams, from middle school squads, to junior varsity to varsity. Because of all the options, about 70 percent of the 832 students enrolled are involved on a team. Many start early, helping Trinity develop its own players for the varsity level.
“We certainly believe offering a range of levels of a sport is positive,” said Craig Maughan, headmaster at Trinity Prep. “With senior high varsity teams, there’s more emphasis on trying to be a winning program, but if you have more levels of teams you have a greater likelihood of kids being able to participate.”
Many might wonder whether schools recruit players because of their athletic success. Recruiting is illegal for public and private schools under Florida High School Athletic Association rules, though it is one of the toughest areas to police.
Schools are allowed to have an open house where they can tell prospective students and parents about the sports programs offered, eligibility guidelines and give a tour of the facilities. They are not allowed to talk about the quality of programs or their coaches. Also, financial aid is given on a need-basis only, not as athletic scholarships.
“What can they tell people? You can talk to them about academics,” said FHSAA administrator Sonny Hester. “Say, ‘We had nine national merit finalists, six kids who went to Ivy League schools.’ But you can’t say anything about the athletic program. I’d tell them to read the paper.”
Girls basketball phenom Krystal Thomas brought plenty of attention to The First Academy during her time there. TFA made three straight trips to the Class 2A final four and won titles in 2006 and 2007. Teammates Tierra Brown and Jaimie Givens also got Division I scholarships — Brown to Stetson and Givens to Florida Atlantic. Thomas plays for Duke.
“Watching what they did was like nothing I’ve ever experienced from an athletic standpoint because of the dominance these girls had,” Whitaker said. “It creates energy on the campus. It was exciting as the headmaster to be a part of that.”
It also might have gotten him a few more students.