The incentives were for supporters of the Faith Academy basketball program in Mobile, Ala. – a “jeans day” so students didn’t have to wear uniforms; the prospect of a “day off” from school; plenty of pizza; and, of course, school pride.
Add in the support north of the border from alumnus and new Toronto Blue Jays third basemen Josh Donaldson, and Faith Academy rampaged its way to the title of Best Basketball Program in the latest USA TODAY High School Sports’ “Best Of” Contest that ended Monday.
The school opened computer labs over the weekend to encourage voting. Social media was buzzing with tweets including hashtags such as #wewanttowin, #weloveourschool, #ramspirit and – our personal favorite — #mrskeltonisalittle competitive. (Mr. Skelton is school headmaster, Tim Skelton.)
Faith Academy won the contest with 568,591 votes, well ahead of second-place finisher St. Catherine’s in Racine, Wisc., with 423,430 votes. Greensboro Day School in North Carolina finished third with 76,606 votes.
“We have great kids,” Skelton said. “We’ve got teachers that value and buy into what we’re doing. This is about school pride and school spirit. Things like this bring unity. This is an accomplishment that we can have together. It’s more than the basketball team, it’s about school pride.”
Faith Academy wins a ceremony at its school hosted by USA TODAY High School Sports, a banner at its school and $1,000 for its athletic department. St. Catherine’s wins a banner and a $500 cash prize. Greensboro Day receivers a banner and $250.
In fairness, the “day off” from school is coming from days built into the school calendar for bad weather or other considerations that were not needed this school year. Faith Academy students won’t get any less instruction because of their success in the contest.
“On Saturday and Sunday, we had open computer time in our computer rooms and it was overwhelming the number of kids who came in on their own time to vote,” Skelton said. “We have built-in days in our schedule and what really sold us on using one of those days was all the kids coming up on the weekends to vote. We needed to do something special for them.”
Faith Academy won the Alabama state voting and then got the highest vote total in the regional round.
“At some point, the fire kinda caught and that point it really turned into a fun event for the entire Faith family,” coach John Price said. “People that I’ve never met that are longtime alumni were calling and posting on Facebook and it was really neat to see how quickly it spread once it started. It speaks highly to the quality of the students and teachers and former teachers. It’s more than anything basketball related.”
Adds athletic director Woodie Head: “I think we decided we were going to rally around it from Day 1. We said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go for this thing.’ It’s like a snowball thing. We won the first round and more people to get involved. We won the second round and more people got involved.”
The Rams, who joined the Alabama High School Athletic Association in the fall of 2008, have gone to five consecutive regionals, won three consecutive regional titles and three consecutive state semifinals.
The trip north to Birmingham hasn’t been kind with losses in each of the semifinals, including last year to eventual champion Parker, but maybe this season will be different. The Rams won a pre-Christmas tournament in the Birmingham area this season, beating one of their top rivals for the state 5A title.
From 2005 to 2008, Faith reached the Alabama Independent School Association semifinals three times and won one state championship.
“We’ve talked to the team about this and our guys now feel a great responsbility to give back to all the Faith supporters and teachers and students,” Price said. “The responsibility is heightened because of this and that’s a good thing. We want our guys to give back to the people who supported them. That’s what they will purpose to do from this point forward.”
Faith Academy plays a sub-regional game Tuesday night against Charles Henderson. There are 32 teams left in 5A in the state and there will be 16 after Tuesday night’s games.