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High Schools

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Gary Merrell was coaxed out of retirement to be the athletic director and basketball coach at The Smith Academy for Excellence all-boys charter school.

Smith Academy has big dreams for future

The Smith Academy for Excellence all-boys charter school is in only its second year of existence, with just fourth through 10th graders in a building on West Washington Boulevard that used to house St. John’s Lutheran School.

So to say the school’s athletic programs are in the infancy stage would be an understatement, but that doesn’t stop Smith Academy from dreaming.

Already a provisional member of the IHSAA, the 95-student Smith Academy is planning to get its current sports teams up to varsity level next year, and there is even a football team in the works.

The Smiths – father Thomas and sons Cameron and Corey, the school’s founders – have coaxed former Heritage and Blackhawk Christian boys basketball coach Gary Merrell, 66, out of retirement to be their athletic director and basketball coach.

“In our society, it is a real problem with kids coming from a single-parent family, getting in trouble, not graduating, and father kids and leave home, and the cycle keeps repeating,” said Merrell, who is Corey Smith’s father-in-law. “The Smiths know that one of the focuses is young guys.

“For the Smiths, (athletics) are huge. It is a hook to get them involved and stay involved. Being in athletics and wearing a uniform is a big deal. For a lot of our inner-city kids, the two keys are basketball and football. That gives our kids a reason to stay at our school, where they belong.”

Thomas Smith, former principal at South Side and Wayne, is a former football coach, and Cameron and Corey have also been heavily involved in athletics.

“Just the fact that we have uniforms for our kids is a big deal,” Merrell said. “We are like, ‘We are a high school, and you can earn varsity letters now.’ ”

The Smith Academy also has a nickname (the Fighting 54th), school colors (Navy Blue and Grey) and the IHSAA’s promise to allow its teams to play in their tournaments in four years as long as certain conditions are met along the way.

The school added three grades this year and plans to keep adding grades to be a full school within a four-year period.

“The reason for joining is legitimacy,” Merrell said of the IHSAA. “It is a step in feeling like we really are a competitive high school. The IHSAA is looking at schools a lot differently because there have been so many come in, and some have already disappeared. They have made it tougher.”

Already scheduled for next year are three road football games at the freshman and junior varsity level. And there are 22 pairs of shoulder pads and 75 pairs of practice pants donated by other schools. Despite not having an outdoors practice facility yet, the school already has a team in place, playing flag football at The Plex.

Merrell said he figures the cost of starting a football program will run around $25,000. There are fund-raisers planned, as well as the hope of grants. Facilities and a practice area are also challenges, but there is the possibility of some land being donated for a football team to use.

For now, the Smith Academy football team is playing Fremont’s junior varsity team, Elkhart Christian’s new team and a home-school team in Elkhart next year. That goes with the 40 basketball middle school and freshman games last year, which will grow to around 60 this year. There is also a cross country and track team.

The dreams don’t end there. Merrell said the Smiths would like to one day add wrestling, hockey and baseball.

There is also a search for a new building, other gymnasiums and hope one day for an all-girls or boarding school.

“As long as I am healthy and have the passion … I need younger people around me, for many reasons,” Merrell said of his involvement. “I still have the desire and I can benefit the kids, and this is a great place to do it.”

gjones@jg.net

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