May 13, 2010 8:03:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Sometimes, your next direction comes from a divine source.
Clay Stringer''s faith in God presented him with an opportunity he has relished since he became a high school teacher and coach.
And as tough as the decision to leave Starkville Academy was, Stringer followed his heart and accepted a position to be principal at Hillcrest Christian School.
Stringer, who began his coaching career 10 years ago at Central Academy in Macon, felt he wasn''t maximizing his potential to influence kids on a large scale.
He coached basketball and golf at Starkville Academy, and along with his teaching duties he was limited to the kids he saw day in and day out.
As principal at Hillcrest Christian School, he''ll have a school that emphasizes strong Christian foundations to guide.
Prior to talking to Hillcrest Christian School administrator Dr. Tom Prather this year, Stringer said he had several other school administrative offers but didn''t feel any of those opportunities were the right move for him, his wife, and three kids.
To Stringer, it''s all part of his divine mission.
"From the very first conversation with Dr. Prather, I felt like God put the two together and directed this," Stringer said. "It''s an opportunity for me to try and impact the lives of a lot of different students and parents. My wife can be more involved in the ministry, too."
Though following his heart to Hillcrest Christian Academy, Stringer said it is difficult to leave Starkville Academy, even though the Volunteers won just one game last season.
The rebuilding struggle of 2009-10 is part of the reason the decision to leave weighed on Stringer.
Through the struggle of losing virtually his entire team from the previous playoff season, Stringer faced a challenge no other area coach dealt with this season. Undersized and inexperienced, Stringer had to keep his team motivated through lopsided losses and growing pains that would drive most players to pack it in midway through the season.
"He lost some players early in the summer, but he never coached a game with any intention except winning it," Starkville Academy Athletic Director Glenn Schmidt. "I''m not sure all of us in coaching could have kept their head up through that.
"He is a great man, great father, husband, role model, and teacher. He''s the whole package and the kind of coach you want to oversee your kids. He''s an outstanding role model. A pleasure to be associated. He''s been an inspiration."
Stringer guided the team to 14 wins in his first season four years ago before leading the team to a 20-win season last year.
The Starkville Academy golf team won the Class AAA North State crown last year and qualified for the state tournament in each of the past two years.
Stringer''s only regret is he won''t be at Starkville Academy to see out the rebuilding process he started this year.
"The kids this year were committed and came to the gym every day wanting to get better," Stringer said. "I''m glad I got to tell them first because we went through a lot this year, and I felt we got closer because of it. Next year''s seniors like Pat Jones and Adam Crittenden, I''m looking forward to seeing how much they grow."
When Stringer decided to become certified in administration prior to starting at Starkville Academy, he wasn''t sure if he''d put in the extra time to work. But after working eight years for the state government straight out of college, coaching girls and boys athletics and teaching, he had a feeling his career could take another positive turn.
Basketball isn''t out of the picture, however, as Stringer will coach Hillcrest Christian School''s seventh-grade team.
"This gives me the opportunity to spend more time with our kids who''ll be in eighth grade, second grade, and K-3," Stringer said. "There''s not as many games, and at that age a lot of that teaching is about fundamentals. It''s great to see kids'' skills develop at that age."
For Schmidt, the athletic department is faced with having to find another head coach in a season full of turnover. Football coach Jeff Terrill replaced Brian Sims, who resigned in the fall, and Neal Henry replaced Justin Brewer and Shane Bazzell as interim baseball coach. Schmidt confirmed Tuesday that Henry had the interim tag removed and will lead the baseball program in 2011.
Jessica Dickens was promoted from assistant softball coach to head coach following Randy Haynes'' final year in the fall.
Luckily, the timing is "just right" to find a replacement for Stringer, Schmidt said.
"We have to get a full-time teacher, and we''ve known for about a month that it''s imminent," Schmidt added. "People have sent things in, but we didn''t act until Stringer told us officially.
"We hope to make a move soon. We haven''t put a time frame on it at all, but we''d like to get someone in soon to get acquainted with the kids."