STAUNTON — Football opportunities for high school-aged kids that are home-schooled or attend private schools in the area have been few and far between.
Grace Christian School in Staunton had a football program for seven years for its students and home-schoolers before the Warriors disbanded the team after the 2018 season, otherwise, that was it for kids who didn’t attend public schools. That is about to change.
Enter Bill Shirley. The former head coach at Buffalo Gap High School from 1990-98 will be coaching a team this fall solely for home-schooled and private school students in Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta County and the surrounding counties.
The Advancing Christ Through Sports (ACTS) Eagles begin their inaugural season Aug. 31 under Shirley’s leadership.
ACTS is under the umbrella of the Victory Worship Center, which is located off U.S. 11 south of Staunton behind the Coca-Cola plant.
“Victory Worship Center has a huge youth sports outreach program,” Shirley said. “There are a variety of sports for boys and girls for all age levels.”
The Eagles will essentially follow the same rules as the Virginia High School League when it comes to eligibility. No player can turn 19 before Aug. 1 and must be in the ninth grade.
And Shirley stressed all potential players will “absolutely” be checked to make sure they are bona fide home-schooled or in a private school that does not field a football team. They also are required to be in good academic and behavior standing.
Shirley, who after his head coaching days at Gap spent time as an assistant at other area high schools as well as Bridgewater College, while also running highly successful quarterback camps around the state, said he was approached in November about starting the team.
“After Grace Christian announced it was stopping football, I had individuals come to me, asking what would be the chances of getting a team started for the home-schooled and private school students,” he said. “I went to the people at the church, and they jumped at the opportunity.”
Shirley readily admits starting a team from scratch is no easy endeavor, especially when the players won’t be in a central location like in a public school. And some have never played football or not since little league.
“It’s not like the players can just walk down the hallway after school and to the practice field,” he said. “They all have to ride in.”
So far the Eagles have players outside the area from Rockbridge, Rockingham, Greene and Albemarle counties.
“It is going to take a real commitment for some of these players to be there,” Shirley said. “But the players and parents have shown a tremendous interest. They all want this to be a success.”
The Eagles, whose colors will be black and orange, will practice Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on the field at the Staunton Moose Lodge, which is across the road from the closed Beverley Manor Elementary School. They play games on Saturday afternoon except for one Friday contest. Their ‘home’ games are on the turf field at Western Albemarle High School.
The turf field presents another challenge, according to Shirley.
“Besides most of these kids never having played on turf before, we will have to watch the heat early in the season. Turf fields are a lot hotter than grass,” he said.
ACTS will be a member of the Eastern Christian Conference, which is comprised of seven home-schooled teams that are split into two divisions. The North Division has two teams in Maryland and one in Delaware, while the South Division has four Virginia teams, including the Eagles. There is a postseason playoff.
The first practice is scheduled for Thursday. Shirley said so far he has issued 22 uniforms, and hopes to get that number to 30 or more.
The team has been able to get in offseason weightlifting and conditioning thanks to Queen City Strength in Staunton.
“They were supportive in offering our players a discount,” Shirley said. “We had 10-14 regularly attend.”
After a scrimmage at Craig County on Aug. 23, the Eagles play their first official game Aug. 31 against the Virginia Beach Breakers at Western Albemarle. ACTS has a seven-game schedule.
The athletic directors at the area’s three private schools — Ridgeview Christian, Grace Christian and Stuart Hall — are glad to see the team’s formation for their students if they choose to play.
“I’m real happy to see this opportunity so these kids don’t have to flip to a public school if they want to play football,” Grace AD Frank Kahrs said. “We are going to have six or seven guys participating this fall.”
Kahrs hated that he had to pull the plug on Grace’s program, but it simply came down to numbers.
“We didn’t get the long-term participation that we thought,” he said. “As the years went on, we started getting more home-schooled kids on the team than our own, which wasn’t a major issue but yet not ideal. In the beginning it probably was a 60-40 mix of Grace students, but the interest started to wane. I thought by starting a football program we might get an influx of students to attend Grace, but that really never materialized.”
Kahrs also pointed out that boys soccer at private schools is played in the fall, and there is also cross country.
“That is three sports competing for a small pool of male athletes,” he said. “Football is a tough sport to practice and play. Plus the academics at Grace are really hard, which means putting in a lot of study hours. Football can be very time-consuming.”
Ridgeview AD Wayne Pettway, who said the Crusaders are likely to have three players join, is thrilled to see the team take shape.
“The team affords a great opportunity for athletes who desire to play football a place to play without having to transfer to a public school,” he said. “We’ve had a few guys at Ridgeview transfer to a public school because they wanted to play football.
“Football is probably the most popular sport in this country at the high school and college levels,” Pettway said. “Fans get behind their teams, and I know that will happen at Ridgeview. The fans here will be pulling for our kids and all the other kids on the Eagles.”
Pettway stressed the team will be successful with Shirley in charge.
“I am excited that Coach Shirley is in place,” he said. “He is a man of great character, and he brings experience and success from coaching at public schools. The team will prosper once the foundation gets in place.”
Stuart Hall won’t have any of its students playing football, but Tim Lawrence, the school’s AD, said he “wished them much success with this project.”
Shirley’s coaching staff is virtually a family affair with his two sons Doug and Rob joining him. Doug played his college ball at Bridgewater, while Rob played at Division II Carson-Newman.
The third assistant is Vincent Banks, who teaches technology and engineering at Stuarts Draft Middle School and is a 2017 Dawbarn Education Award winner. Banks, a high school standout in Tennessee where he was a top three finalist for the state’s player-of-the-year as a senior and later played at East Tennessee State, and his wife help start the ACTS youth program. In the beginning they had 17 flag football players, and now that number has grown to 750-800 youngsters in the various sports.
Shirley knows he and his staff will experience a few bumps in getting the new team off the ground. The players aren’t going to be previously groomed in football fundamentals and techniques like he was use to at Buffalo Gap.
“I am going to learn a lot from coaching this team,” he said. “But I am excited to help these youngsters experience the joy of football. Without what we are doing here, they never would have this opportunity.”