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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Coach Bob Ateca watches as his players run drills at a practice field next to Christ United Methodist Church on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

If ever the phrase "addition by subtraction" applied to prep sports, it is the recent decision by Grace Baptist Academy to make the transition from 11-man to eight-man football.

When the tornadoes that swept across the Chattanooga area in April 2020 leveled the entire Grace campus — turning the main academic building, gymnasium and other facilities into rubble — it also damaged the future of Golden Eagles athletics. Since that time, Grace administrators have looked for ways to tread water until the school can be rebuilt, a project that's expected to be completed by fall 2022.

With an enrollment that hovered around 150 in grades 9-12, depth and overall numbers on the football roster had long been an obstacle for Grace. But without the benefit of academic or athletic facilities, there have been fewer new students enrolling, which compounded that challenge.

With only 19 players currently on the roster for the upcoming season, Grace administrators petitioned the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association to remain a member of the state's major prep sports governing body for all other sports but allow the school to step out temporarily for football in order to compete in the Tennessee State Independent Athletic Association.

At its most recent meeting, the TSSAA Board of Control granted that request, setting in motion the school's plan to play eight-man football in the independent league for the next two seasons, then reevaluate whether to go back to the traditional 11-man game should enrollment improve as expected.

"The problem is we have no new kids coming in right now," said Grace athletic director and football coach Bob Ateca. "I've been fighting it for a couple of years because of numbers, but there's no future growth in the program right now. We believe that will definitely change when our new school opens and we have athletic facilities on campus.

"We didn't want to lose football because it's such a great avenue for our school, so we wanted to find a way to keep the sport until we can rejuvenate with a new school. The way we're looking at it, you have to humble yourself to do what's best for our program long term."

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Grace Academy switches to eight-man football

The Golden Eagles will become the 10th school that competes in the TSIAA, including Ezell-Harding, which won the TSSAA Class 1A state championship in 2001 before lagging enrollment forced the Nashville-area school to join the independent league's football conference.

Murfreesboro will be the closest road trip for the Golden Eagles, although the logistics of their new league will be similar to the small private school football region — with teams mostly in the Nashville and Knoxville areas — the team has competed in the past four seasons.

Although the program is just three years removed from a 7-4 season that ended in the second round of the playoffs, Grace finished 2-8 last season — including a season-opening forfeit loss due to COVID-19 — and its lack of depth added to the level of each game's difficulty.

"The difference from our playoff run of a few years ago is the lack of linemen and overall size," said Ateca, who admitted he had not even witnessed eight-man football previously in a 30-year coaching career. "All the factors really had me concerned about our kids' safety to compete in 11-man. In eight-man football, we really only need three linemen instead of five, and it will allow our athletes room to operate in space. That plays to our strengths.

"It's been more of a transition for the parents just because of the perception that it's not real football. Our players see it as an opportunity to compete against teams with similar size and numbers, which should mean more success."

Since the devastating storms of last year demolished the campus, every game and practice has been a road trip for Grace teams in all sports.

Just before one of the football team's final spring workouts at its temporary practice home — a lumpy open field behind East Brainerd's Christ United Methodist Church — coaches unloaded equipment they had transported in the backs of pickup trucks while players began strapping on pads and stretching in the ankle-high grass.

Asked how much he and his teammates knew about the style of football they would be transitioning to, senior quarterback and defensive back Cooper Knecht laughed and admitted "not much."

"When we found out we were going to switch to eight-man football, all of us started looking up videos in class on our phones," said Knecht, who also plays basketball and soccer. "There's a lot more open space to defend, so it should be pretty wide open and fun.

"We've had to learn to adapt to a lot of things since we lost our school, mainly just not having our own home field to play on. My parents have taught at Grace since before I was even alive, so the school is pretty special to our family. That's why I'm just really excited to have the opportunity to keep playing football for my school."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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