November 5, 2010 7:53:00 AM
Billy Thomas knew more than two years ago the Immanuel Christian football program was in good hands.
The longtime football and basketball coach wanted to ensure the football program''s continued growth as an 11-man team, so he opted to step aside so the school could bring in Shawn Gates as new football coach and Daniel Merchant as an assistant coach.
Thomas hoped the decision would pay dividends, but he didn''t imagine the Rams would be where they are today.
"It takes time to build a football program" Thomas said. "I think everybody was excited when we started this year and that we were excited about having a pretty good year. With the wins we have had and making the playoffs, I think it is huge. I think it is a big thing for our school."
Immanuel Christian will make history at 7 tonight when it will travel to Tri-County for its first 11-man playoff game in school history.
The Rams (6-5) will be at less than 100 percent for tonight''s game. Gates said running back Norris Harris won''t play after he suffered a knee injury in the team''s victory against New Site last week in its regular-season finale. The Rams also won''t get senior Justin James back. Gates said James wasn''t cleared to return from an injury. He said the team will take 13 or 14 players to Tri-County, which is expected to dress out more than 40, and "give it all we got."
Immanuel Christian has played with that kind of effort to reach this point. It defeated Central Holmes Christian 37-34 on a 26-yard field goal by Joel Meek in the final seconds to clinch the No. 2 playoff spot out of Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class A, District 3.
The school last advanced to the playoffs in 2006, when it lost to Tri-County in the eight-man playoffs. The last time Immanuel Christian earned a victory in the playoffs was 1998 when it defeated Faith 40-14 in the Southeastern Christian Conference playoffs. Victory Christian defeated Immanuel Christian 42-18 the following week.
This year, Thomas said the football team''s playoff run has everyone at the school excited. He said the team, which won just one game last season, experienced its share of growing pains -- just ike Thomas'' friends told him it would -- and has continued to grow and to build momentum.
Thomas said the decision to move from eight- to 11-man football was a key factor in that growth. He said the school, which now has more than 300 students and will move up to Class 2A next year, wanted to give families moving to the area or students who wanted to transfer the best possible option, and that everyone felt more boys would want to play 11-man football.
The fact that Immanuel Christian has reached the playoffs in 11-man without playing a full 11-man schedule, which it will do next season, is another source of pride, Thomas said.
"We have been very blessed that our enrollment has been up each year," Thomas said. "It has been a huge blessing in these economic times across the country and down here in the South where private Christian schools are struggling because of that. We have been blessed to add really good numbers to our school. I think that all plays in with athletics. Athletics are a big part of a school, and the better you are in any sport, whether it is boys or girls, it is going to help your school grow."
Immanuel Christian Administrator Bob Williford never had to worry about growth or having enough student-athletes go out for the football team when he was principal at Columbus High School. In fact, Williford believes the Falcons had more than 100 players on the team when he retired from working at the school.
It will take a few more years for Immanuel Christian, which has a roster in the low 20s this season, to get to that point, but he said the development of the football program has made everyone feel the school is going in the right direction.
"It has been special," Williford said. "At the beginning of the year, we felt we would be better and they have exceeded those expectations. I think it has been exciting because a lot of the staff have been here and were here four years ago when we started playing 11-man football. They witnessed the struggles to turn it around."
Williford, a former basketball coach, said the success of football trickles down to all of the other sports because it tends to draw bigger crowds, which brings in more money, and it sets the tone for the rest of the school year.
This season''s success will set the tempo for next year, when Williford said Immanuel Christian is expected to join Oak Hill Academy, Canton Academy, Manchester Academy, and Leake Academy in Class 2A. Williford acknowledged the step up will be a challenge, but history has shown the school''s football program can make strides. He said there is every reason to believe it will do the same thing again.
"I think this process has gone remarkably well," Williford said. "I remember a very tense and nervous feeling knowing we made the commitment to go to 11-man football and hoping and praying the numbers would grow. We still need more kids to come out, but looking at the big picture, if we do the kind of things we are going to do, we''re going to draw more kids. To have the opportunity to compete in 2A is going to be great for us."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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