Westside Christian moves toward third season of 8-man football

July 24, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Eric Norris knows a little something about making do.

Less than a decade ago, Norris played professional football as an linebacker for an arena team out of Lexington, Ky. Known as the Horsemen, they called historic Rupp Arena home. They played for a championship, losing the 2007 United Indoor Football League title to Sioux Falls after a missed last-second field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.

The experience offered several highlights, but it was, after all, arena football. Roster moves were frequent. Equipment was spotty. Budgets were tight. The franchise was affiliated with three different leagues before finally shutting down in 2010.

Norris returned to his native Middle Georgia. An all-state linebacker out of East Laurens, Norris graduated high school in 2002 and played college ball at Eastern Kentucky University in the Ohio Valley Conference. With a degree in physical education, he knocked around as a substitute teacher in Bibb County.

Through his wife Emily, Norris learned of a coaching opportunity at Westside Christian Academy in Warner Robins. The school, which graduated its first high school class in 2010, planned to add football to a growing list of extracurricular activities in fall 2011.

Norris got the job, earning what he called “the challenge of starting a program from scratch.” As the Warriors prepare for their third year, Norris continues to make do with limited resources. Consistent with his Westside Christian environment, he takes it on faith.

“I really believe God led me here,” Norris said recently. “There’s nothing wrong with the public school system, (but) every aspect of my life, Jesus is about -- and that’s what we’re about here.”

Westside plays 8-a-side football, which, coincidentally, is the same as arena football.

“Everything translates,” Norris said of the correlation between arena ball and what Westside does. “You can do a lot of things. It depends on your personnel. We’re an option team.”

The new Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association (Westside is a charter member) limits the number of players on a team to 22. Norris likely won’t have to worry about exceeding the limit. He said the ideal number is 20, but he’s counting on having about 15. He had six show for a summer workout one day last week.

That low number stems in part from the fact players are involved with family vacations and other activities. It’s also indicative of the struggles private schools experience in a down economy, Westside Principal Ken Price said.

“Economy goes up, numbers rise,” said Price, who recently retired from the Houston County school system, where he taught and coached basketball at Northside High School.

Beyond economics, Price thinks Westside’s enrollment will continue to grow during the next three to five years because of what he calls a growing discrepancy between secular and religious philosophies in education.

“People are going to have to make a choice,” he said.

If and when enrollment rises, Price and Head of School Ricky McInnis (late of Peach County High School) plan to be ready. Their vision for the school includes a weight room, gymnasium and baseball/softball fields. In addition to football, the school fields varsity teams in basketball, soccer and volleyball. As part of Division II of the GICAA, Westside can also accept a percentage of home-schooled children on its athletic teams.

Meanwhile, the football team moves forward. The program earned its first and only win in a homecoming game last year.

“This year, we’re looking to improve even more,” rising senior Jonathan Kenton said.

The team’s center and one of its defensive linemen, Kenton has been with the program since its inception. In fact, his sophomore year was his first playing football, either in Georgia or during the five years he lived in Ohio. None of his prior schools had football teams.

“I didn’t want to play on a rec team,” he said. “I wanted to play for a school and represent.”

His football background is similar to Westside’s other participants. As a result, Norris’ instruction pays special attention to fundamentals such as tackling and proper alignment.

“The biggest mark of progress I’ve seen is toughness,” he said.

In that vein, the team will break full pads out of a storage trailer in the next week. Time is short. The Warriors’ first game is scheduled for Aug. 16 when Westside hosts Byne Christian School of Albany.

Contact Chris Deighan at cdeighan@cox.net

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