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  • Greg Jones | The Journal Gazette Smith Academy athletic director Gary Merrell stands in front of the trophy case he hopes to one day fill. The all-boys charter school became a full IHSAA member this year.

Friday, October 13, 2017 1:00 am

Tiny school big on athletics

Smith Academy fields 3 sports, gets IHSAA membership

GREG JONES | The Journal Gazette

Gary Merrell has been waiting for this for four years – arguably even for six years. 

The athletic director for Smith Academy for Excellence has seen the Fort Wayne all-boys charter school transition into a full IHSAA member, which became official in the 2017-18 school year. 

The Fighting 54th teams competed in the cross country sectional at Bellmont last Saturday, and the school will field a basketball team in the winter and a track team in the spring. Having a team in each of the three seasons is one of the requirements for IHSAA membership. 

“It's a real big step for the kids,” said Merrell, the former Heritage and Blackhawk Christian boys basketball coach. “They didn't realize what the IHSAA was, but they did know that when tournaments came we didn't get to play. In our kids' own minds and their parents, this really legitimizes us because when tournaments come ... our kids will understand they are in a tournament, just like all the other city schools. It is a huge step for the school just to show its progress, but really it's for the kids.”

Smith Academy, founded by former South Side and Wayne principal Thomas Smith and sons, Corey and Cameron, has been in existence for six years. Even then, Merrell wanted to join the IHSAA, but the school started with just freshmen and added a grade each year so it wasn't even close to being ready for membership. 

But four years ago the school was made a probationary member of the state's high school athletics governing organization. Each year, the IHSAA has visited the school and monitored its progress with enrollment, eligibility and other requirements. 

“They kept tabs on any violations we might have or any problems we have with other teams,” said Merrell, who also coaches the basketball and cross country teams. “They are being more careful, some schools had to take an extra year to get in. It is a long road making it in.”

With 34 students this year, Smith Academy will easily be the smallest IHSAA member. Central Christian Academy in Indianapolis has 58 students. Merrell said the challenge for the Fighting 54th will be remaining competitive, especially in basketball. 

The basketball program has added IHSAA schools each year and will play 17 of its 21 games against fellow IHSAA members. 

Merrell said the Smiths believe athletics play a big role in helping to educate the students at the academy, many of whom come from troubled backgrounds and families without fathers. 

“We don't get normal athletes,” Merrell said. “Most of our kids when they come in have never played on a team, either because of a lack of talent, grades or disciplinary reasons. Getting to be a competitive (basketball) program has not been easy, but on the other hand we have kids who wouldn't have the chance to play at other places.”

Of the 34 students in the school, 20-22 will play basketball, five are on the cross country team and around 10 will be on the track team. One day, Merrell said the school hopes to have a football program and has already been stockpiling equipment.

“For our kids, athletics is very important because it gives you a reason to come to school and stay out of trouble,” Merrell said. “A big part of (Smith Academy's mission) is athletics.

“Athletics is going to be a big part of the future success of this school and being part of the IHSAA will make other kids begin to think 'I am having trouble and I need help, and I could go there and play.' Not to recruit an athlete, but it is a reason to get into a school to turn things around.” 

gjones@jg.net