We may have seen the wave of the future on Saturday night.
Or we may have seen a flash in the pan that will disappear in a couple of years.
There is no doubt that the folks who founded Eastern Christian Academy have recruited and trained a group of young men to play fantastic football. The Honey Badgers thrashed Champagnat Catholic, a big, talented team from Hialeah, Fla., 40-6 in their season opener at Appoquinimink.
It was a football game played at a high school, but it didn’t seem like a high school football game. There were no bands or cheerleaders. A nice crowd turned out – the home bleachers were about two-thirds full, with dozens more standing along the fence near the field. But there was almost no cheering.
Even long touchdown plays were met with a smattering of applause, not the roars you hear at a typical high school game. The visitors from Florida had maybe a dozen fans, and ECA appeared to have fewer than 150 fans. The majority of the crowd didn’t appear to have a rooting interest. They were just there to see what this overnight football powerhouse was all about.
The Honey Badgers are about winning, and winning big. Leading 34-6 with 1:18 to go, they went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Champagnat 32 and converted, thanks to a penalty. Starting quarterback David Sills V, who never left the game, then threw two more passes, the second to John Lumpkin for a 6-yard touchdown with 5.5 seconds left. Because a 40-6 victory just sounds better than a 34-6 victory, I guess.
Afterward, I approached David Sills IV, the quarterback’s father and the man who, by all accounts, has financed almost all of the effort to put this new school together. I asked if he would answer some questions about Eastern Christian Academy, but he politely declined. He said The News Journal had been unfair to him two years ago in all of the stories written about his efforts to supersize the football program at Red Lion Christian Academy.
In the wake of that effort, Red Lion Christian almost went bankrupt and was taken over by another church. Under new leadership, Red Lion Christian quickly regained full membership in the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, but is not playing varsity football this season.
None of that stopped Sills IV and other supporters. No longer welcome in Delaware high school athletics, they started Elkton, Md.-based Eastern Christian Academy as a “cyberschool” last year. The Honey Badgers weren’t sanctioned by any state athletic body, which prompted opponents to cancel dates last year and limited ECA to just three games.
This year, the Honey Badgers have scheduled 11 games against teams from Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. At least seven of them will be on the road.
ECA head coach Dwayne Thomas said the school has 68 students, with 53 on the football team. He said 58 of the students are from New Castle County, and 45 of the football players are from Delaware. The school has no female students, but Thomas said girls would be welcome if they are interested in enrolling.
Thomas said the school is at 505 Blue Ball Road – the address of the sprawling Triumph Industrial Park – in Elkton. He said students attend class from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., take a 30-minute break, then go to study hall from 2:30 to 3:30. Football practice follows.
“Our school is really a STEM school – science, technology, engineering and math – with a strong emphasis on technology,” Thomas said. “So each of our students have to have a laptop, they have to have an iPhone, in preparation for 2020.”
International Connections Academy, based in Baltimore, is ECA’s academic provider. Most of the instruction is conducted online, but Thomas said the school also has a personal touch.
“Like Newark High School, like any other high school, the students are supervised,” the coach said. “We have an in-classroom teacher and an online instructor.”
Thomas said tuition at ECA is $10,000 per year, a steep hurdle for many families.
“We don’t have any financial aid at this time,” Thomas said. “So parents borrow it, go to their church, go to different family members to help them pay the tuition.”
But the programs distributed at Saturday night’s game advertised Advanced Educational Systems (AES), which is billed as “a collection of programs geared towards the positive development of at-risk and disadvantaged youth in our community.” AES listed 16 financial partners, including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Daystar Sills, the construction company founded by Sills IV. The program also encouraged fans to make a donation to AES, which it said is a 501c(3) tax-exempt entity. The program said donations may be mailed to 330 Water Street, Wilmington, DE 19804 – the same address as Daystar Sills.
Thomas said the football program at ECA doesn’t offer anything out of the ordinary – which makes you wonder why anyone would want to pay $10,000 to go there.
“We offer the same thing,” Thomas said. “Purpose, passion, commitment and discipline. I think most winning coaches and most winning programs demand the same things. … I wouldn’t say that coming to my school is better than anybody else’s school. I think we are an option.”
It’s an option that some of New Castle County’s top high school football players have taken. Several area coaches have complained that ECA is recruiting their players, and encouraging current ECA players to persuade their friends to join the Honey Badgers.
The school’s biggest selling point is an enhanced chance of earning a college football scholarship. According to the roster in the program, five ECA players have already made verbal commitments to Michigan, Tennessee, Southern California and West Virginia. The program said six others have received scholarship offers from Hawaii, Rutgers, Syracuse, USC, Tennessee, Eastern Michigan and Northern Michigan.
Thomas said the national schedule that ECA will play this season attracts college recruiters.
“That’s what we’re stoked about, getting the kids an opportunity,” Thomas said. “Like I keep saying to people, the kids in the northern part of Delaware are not competing against the kids in the southern part of Delaware for scholarship dollars. The kids in northern Delaware are competing against kids in South Florida, Texas, California. More often than not, the coaches are not coming here to recruit kids. So we’ll go play the high schools that they are recruiting, so they’ll get a chance to see our kids.”
Of course, Andre Patton of St. Elizabeth signed with Rutgers and Jarrett Ross of Charter of Wilmington signed with Maryland last February. At the end of this season, Middletown’s Chris Godwin and Salesianum’s Troy Reeder have committed to sign with Penn State, Salesianum’s Brian O’Neill has committed to sign with Pittsburgh and Middletown’s Darius Wade has committed to sign with Boston College. And before Wade made his decision, recruiters from Oregon and Ohio State came to Middletown to talk with him. So players from traditional New Castle County high schools do appear to be on the recruiting map.
Thomas defended the academic program at ECA, and said the school has already produced more than a dozen college football players.
“I have, right now, 16 kids that are in universities,” Thomas said. “I have two in the University of Southern California, one at Connecticut, one at Syracuse, two at West Virginia. They all were mid-year kids, and they all are 3.0 or better students. You can check that.”
Due to student-privacy laws, we can’t check that. Just like we couldn’t get any answers from Sills IV.
I wanted to ask him all of the questions I asked Thomas. I wanted to ask him how a school could have Christian in the middle of its name, but have most of the crowd turn around and look up during the second quarter when an assistant coach repeatedly screamed profanities from atop the press box.
I wanted to ask him how much money he had spent so far in building this new school, and why he thought no traditional Delaware high school could provide a football program appropriate for his son. Most of all, I wanted to ask him if he would continue to support ECA financially after his son graduates following next season.
Several schools – Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and Findlay Prep in Nevada come to mind – have been grooming the nation’s top high school basketball talent for years. ECA appears to be taking that approach to football, and if the school succeeds it won’t be long before others around the country follow.
The big answers won’t be known for a few years. If ECA continues to function 5-10 years after Sills V graduates, it will be a surprise to almost all of Delaware’s high school football community. If several ECA graduates go on to play college football, remain eligible academically and earn their degrees, that will be the true sign of success.
Thomas said ECA’s players – excuse me, students – are tested regularly and must maintain academic progress to play football. The Honey Badgers aced their first football test on Saturday night, but the real tests are years down the road.