One of the biggest stories of this prep football season is being written by one of the smallest programs in our area.
When the Grace Academy administration decided last spring to make the move to eight-man football due to a smaller number of players on the roster — the private school's enrollment suffered after an April 2020 tornado leveled the entire campus — the Chattanooga program faced an uncertain future.
But despite a roster of only 17 players, the Golden Eagles have wasted little time establishing themselves as arguably the state's best eight-man team, rolling to a 7-0 record so far, beating opponents by an average score of 56-10 and overwhelming them with a combination of athleticism and a physicality that carried over from Grace's 11-man seasons.
Already off to the best start in the program's 18-year history, coach Bob Ateca believes the experience from four years competing against TSSAA Division II-A teams — including a 7-4 season in 2018 that was capped by the program's only playoff win — has given his team an edge in adjusting.
"We had played in such a physical league for several years and our guys had gotten beaten up enough that now they're taking that mentality and imposing their will on teams," Ateca said. "We're still adjusting to this new game, but what we did was take a lot of the same concepts we had used in the 11-man game and apply it."
When Grace's campus was obliterated by the tornado, the school's future was put in jeopardy. With the enrollment of some 150 students in grades 9-12 already considered small, not having academic or athletic facilities steered prospective new students from enrolling, which severely stunted the school's growth.
In a move designed to buy time until new academic and athletic facilities could be completed — rather than shut down football for a year, which likely would have destroyed the program — administrators opted to shift to the eight-man game. Grace's small roster was not as much of a concern competing in the 12-team Tennessee State Independent Athletic Association, where no other program has more than 32 players on its roster.
"Our kids and really our whole school and church community have gone through so much," said Ateca, who also lost his family's home to the storms. "It's an emotional thing, knowing what we've all gone through, to see the kids getting to enjoy success and seeing what they can accomplish together."
Wanting to simply start the season with a healthy group, the tiny roster also forced Grace coaches to protect players from potential injury by not having scrimmages. But that also meant opening the season with no idea how the team would adjust to the eight-man game against teams with more experience.
In their third game, the Eagles made a nearly three-hour trip, just south of Birmingham, Alabama, to face nationally ranked Evangel Christian. After trailing at halftime, Grace pulled away for a 20-point win that not only gave the players confidence they could compete with anyone on their schedule but also opened the path for the Eagles to be recognized nationally.
Going into Friday's next-to-last regular season game, Grace is No. 1 in the National High School Association's eight-man rankings.
"We've had a lot of success, but what's been really exciting is just getting to compete every week," said quarterback Cooper Knecht, who has stood out among a talented group of five senior starters by rolling up 1,808 total yards and 27 touchdowns and also intercepting five passes on defense.
"Our coaches had told us that we had a lot of potential, but when we took the trip to Alabama and came back to finish the way we did, that was the turning point. We're happy with what we've done so far, but we can't be satisfied because there's still more we can accomplish."
Six of the eight players who have carried the ball this season average at least 5 yards per carry, and the defense has been just as impressive with 11 interceptions — including two returned for scores — an incredible 55 tackles for loss, plus nine sacks.
The TSIAA playoffs begin in three weeks, and the state champion will automatically qualify for the eight-man national tournament, sponsored by the NHSA and held Nov. 12-15 in Panama City, Florida.
Beyond that, Grace Academy's new academic buildings and athletic facilities are scheduled for completion by next year, which will allow students to return to campus for the 2022-23 school year. Ateca, who is also the school's athletic director, said he hasn't yet decided whether to continue playing in the eight-man league to allow the roster time to grow once the campus reopens.
"The biggest thing for us as seniors is that we're getting to have a memorable season," Knecht said. "With everything that went wrong and all the difficulties we've had, it would've been really easy to just give up. But we never did.
"We've learned earlier than most others that there will always be difficult times, but we also know that we've been blessed. This season has shown there's a light at the end of the tunnel."