It takes time to build a sports program from the ground up. It can be challenging, and at times even a little frustrating, but the willingness to stay the course must be strong enough to overcome any obstacle along the way.
Marcus Coffey, head football coach at Lighthouse Private Christian Academy, said it isn’t always easy to convince students to come out for a team because as he says, “a new program doesn’t have all of the amenities and bells and whistles that the millennials like.”
It didn’t stop him from putting forth the effort to take the football program forward.
“We were out there on some days in June and July and only six or seven kids showed up for conditioning,” Coffey said. “We had a few more come out the week before school. It makes it challenging to teach fundamentals. You have to have athleticism, but at the same time, it only gets you so far.”
Former Navarre softball standout Jessica Stapleton knows the challenges that come with the process as well as anyone.
She remembers her first season a couple of years ago as the head softball coach at Lighthouse and the struggle that came with even putting a full team on the field.
“That first season, we would have kids run off the field because they had to go to work. It was like ‘sorry coach, it’s that time,’” Stapleton said. “So sometimes we would play with eight players and take an out for the next two innings.”
Lighthouse is still in its infancy in terms of athletics but steps are being taken to grow the program. It starts with coaches like Stapleton and Coffey, among others, their dedication meaning everything to the future success of sports at the school.
Other steps include a weight room on the new high school campus in Gulf Breeze and a football field on the new campus as well that is set to be completed sometime in the next year. A running track may be put in around the field someday as well.
Collin Hendrickson is the executive director of the school. In that role, he does everything from driving the bus to getting work done around the campus, such as painting and clearing space for the future site of the football field.
Hendrickson is excited about what the future holds for Lighthouse, a school started by his wife, Joanna Johannes. He talks about the buzz already being generated by the rise of the athletic program.
“There is so much enthusiasm,” Hendrickson said. “The potential is unlimited.”
He is quick to credit his wife, though, for her efforts in making athletics a reality at Lighthouse, which has a total of six campuses.
“Her desire for sports and athletics is beyond imagination,” Hendrickson said. “She really gets into it. She started this school on her own dime and created it through her own drive and desire and love for the Lord. A lot of private schools are going out of business. We keep growing and are having fun.”
And the success keeps coming.
The Sting Rays basketball team made it to the national tournament in Tennessee in March and went 2-2 while Chris Jones finished second in the 3-point competition. Jones’ teammate, Nigel Evans, has been offered a scholarship to play basketball at Southern Indiana. Huntingdon is recruiting him for football.
Speaking of football, the school scrambled just to play four games in 2015. Last season, it went 2-7 in its first year as a member of the Florida High School Athletic Association. The Sting Rays will play 11 games in 2017 and their schedule will include games against Baker, Northview and Escambia.
Even small steps are a step forward.
“We are teaching the importance of being fundamentally sound in the approach to the game and understanding the X’s and O’s and terminology of the game,” Coffey said. “As we got to the latter part of the season, you could see the kids were getting it and they were willing to work hard and willing to learn to get better.”
Stapleton has seen her players make strides as well. She never intended to coach once she graduated from college but soon received offers from people to give their children pitching lessons. That led her to a job as a coach, and she’s all in.
“I’m fully invested in the players, teaching them how to do things the right way each step of the way,” Stapleton said. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t see why we can’t be competitive within a few years.”
The team appears to be on the right track.
“Some girls didn’t know the basic rules when we started. We were at a very beginner level,” Stapleton said. “It was hard to even watch our first game. Now it feels more like softball. The girls are hitting, pitching and fielding a lot better. It’s so rewarding to see where we are from the first game until now.”
Without question, a foundation for success has been laid. As the athletic teams continue to rise, so do the expectations.
Hendrickson, for example, went about as high as you can get with expectations when asked about his ultimate goal for the football program, which will be eligible for postseason play in 2018.
“We want to be state champions,” Hendrickson said. “We feel we have the right people and the right students here to be that successful.”
That statement applies to the other teams on campus as well.
“We have a great athletic director and great coaches and things can only get better as we go along,” Hendrickson said. “It takes a lot heart, drive and desire to succeed, and that is what our kids have.”
Featured in the April 27 issue of Navarre Press. Subscribe online at navarrepress.com for as little as $38 per year.