High School Sports

Legion charter school’s arrival in York County sports brings questions on impact

Legion Collegiate Academy is not making a quiet entry into York, Lancaster, and Chester counties high school sports scene.

The fledgling public charter school has little infrastructure or staff, outside of a high profile athletic director/head football coach, Strait Herron, but is already dividing opinion in the region.

Some talk about the potential sports impacts of a school that clearly differs from the traditional public education model. Others can’t register their kid for the school -- or apply for a coaching or teaching job -- fast enough.

Here are some potential impacts, questions and relevant points to keep in mind as you form your opinion about the area’s newest school:

Key questions about Legion

Here are a couple of key questions that many are asking as Legion moves toward its scheduled fall of 2019 opening.

1) Where will the school’s sports teams, called the Lancers, practice and play home games?

It appears Legion will have to rent facilities for all of its sports, especially in its first year. It’s unlikely Rock Hill School District 3 will be willing to rent facilities -- including district-owned District Three Stadium -- to what some might perceive as a direct educational rival. Herron said Legion’s initial school plans include practice fields and a gym. The hope is to eventually build a football stadium, but that’s not included in the initial plans.

2) Which schools will Legion play this fall? “We’ll have to find games and probably play more on the road than we do at home,” said Herron. “It’ll be enjoyable, but tough.”

Catawba Ridge, the new Fort Mill high school opening this fall, also has encountered this issue, particularly in football, because 2019 is the second year of two-year football game contracts for nearly all area schools.

3) How long will it take Legion to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center? No high school student-athlete can play Division I or II college sports without registering with the Eligibility Center, which confirms potential college recruits have enough approved credits, qualifying test score(s), and a minimum 2.3 core GPA. Essentially all established schools offering grades 9-12 are registered with the Eligibility Center, whether the school is public or private.

Herron said Thursday that as soon as Legion nails down its class schedule, the process of getting certified by the NCAA Eligibility Center will be initiated. He was confident that process would be completed before the 2019-20 school year commences, and also added that all of Legion’s core classes will be taught in-person, not online. Many of the school’s elective classes will be conducted online.

Legion’s sports teams could be very successful, quickly

Many high school sports fans in the area are predicting almost instant success for Legion, especially in football, and that’s not a ridiculous opinion. Consider the other two public charter schools that Pinnacle Charter School Management Group operates in South Carolina, Oceanside Collegiate and Gray Collegiate.

Oceanside was just named one of the top-100 high school athletic programs in the country for 2018, by MaxPreps. The school won the 3A girls’ golf state title and finished runners-up in girls’ swimming, girls’ tennis and volleyball.

Gray, located in West Columbia, has particularly excelled in basketball. The War Eagles have won at least 17 games in each of the school’s first four years and claimed the 2A state championship last season.

Neither school has had as much success in football.

Like Gray, Legion’s 600 (or less) enrollment would almost certainly place it in the 2A classification, meaning its possible region opponents could include Lewisville (if the Lions remain in 2A), Buford, Andrew Jackson, and other schools in Chesterfield and Kershaw counties.

Hiring Herron as Legion’s football coach made clear that Pinnacle wanted quick football success at its newest school. And Legion’s web site states that it expects to create an athletic department in which at least 30 percent of student-athletes receive at least one college sports scholarship offer.

“We want to hire the best possible staff that we can to create an athletic department that will be second to none in South Carolina,” Herron said during his introductory press conference earlier this month.

Legion is going to annoy certain people, regardless of what happens

Legion will join the South Carolina High School League, but it operates differently from traditional public schools. Legion can’t match the funding and facilities of most public schools, but Legion will have at least two athletic advantages over its public school neighbors:

  • The school will have a capped enrollment of no more than 600 students. That means Legion will never worry about realignment and moving into bigger and more competitive classifications. Think that’s not a big deal? Ask Indian Land, which was a 1A school in 2010 and will likely be in the 4A ranks in 2020. There have been plenty of athletic program growing pains for the Warriors, and some lopsided losses too during a decade of transition.

  • Legion will pick where its campus will be. That allows school leaders to choose the public school zone from which it will receive student-athletes. No other public school has done that. Any new public school would have its own unique zone carved out of the existing map.

Gray was built in the growing West Columbia area, with roughly 20 high schools within a 10-minute drive, according to Todd Helms, who is in charge of the Pinnacle Group’s athletics and new school development.

Oceanside was built in the same zone as South Carolina’s biggest high school. Wando High School has a full thousand students more than second-largest Dorman, and finished 22nd nationally in that MaxPreps list of 2018’s best high school sports programs.

Legion is looking to build a school near Nichols Store on SC-901 -- in South Pointe’s zone. Since opening in 2006, South Pointe has won five football state titles, a girls’ golf state championship, produced three NFL players and made deep playoff runs in several other sports.

But Helms said the property Legion is currently pursuing wasn’t even its first choice and that it didn’t purposely pursue a location within South Pointe’s zone.

Students living in Northwestern’s zone can only play sports at Northwestern (same for Rock Hill High), but South Pointe’s athletic program would have to contend with Legion and York Prep for students living in its zone.

“Our population is already smaller than the other two schools (Rock Hill and Northwestern) so I guess it makes it more difficult on us,” said South Pointe AD Adam Hare. “We just have to continue to work on building our programs, and go from there. And not just athletics, but hopefully people realize the academics too. There are certain things where I don’t know that (Legion) would have the resources to offer certain classes like the public schools do.”

Transfers, and impacts on Rock Hill School District 3

Any anger or frustration toward Legion throwing wrinkles into the system should be directed toward Columbia and the SCHSL. That governing body allows charter schools, and even overt private schools, to play among public schools despite what are, in some cases, clear inequities.

Legion will provide an outlet for parents seeking to transfer their kids to a new school in Rock Hill, especially for sports purposes. Legion isn’t a District 3 school and doesn’t have to abide by the rules that South Pointe, Rock Hill and Northwestern imposed on themselves regarding sports transfers. One rule states that student-athletes have to sit out a year of sports if they transfer to another of the city’s three high schools, unless the involved principals give approval.

Legion will abide by SCHSL rules, but not until its second year of existence. Herron said student-athletes who transfer to Legion during the 2019-20 school year, but don’t move into Legion’s zone, will be grandfathered in as eligible in 2020-21 when the school expects to join the SCHSL, even if the student-athlete still doesn’t live in Legion’s zone by that time.

Parents and students need to keep this in mind: if they transfer from one SCHSL member high school to Legion, then decide they don’t like Legion and transfer to another SCHSL member school, they have to sit out the following 365 days of varsity sports, unless they have a legitimate change of address approved by the SCHSL.

Middle schoolers from any school district that enroll at Legion on the first day of ninth grade are eligible. If a middle schooler in the Rock Hill school district enrolled at a different high school for ninth grade than the one they were zoned for, based on their residence, then they would have to sit out 365 days (a Rock Holly school District 3 rule, not SCHSL).

And there could be some financial implications for local public school districts, too.

Rock Hill School District 3 loses approximately $8,000 in funding every time a student leaves the district, according to district director of marketing and communications Mychal Frost. That money comes from a combination of local tax revenue, grants and federal funding.

The Rock Hill school district could take an enrollment and financial hit once Legion opens its doors, though the new charter school’s 600 students likely won’t all come from one district. Helms noted that Gray Collegiate’s students, about half of whom don’t play sports, come from 14 different school districts throughout the Midlands region.

Legion’s different way of doing things could have some positive impacts

Legion has different ideas about educating than the public schools that have long dominated York County, and the surrounding areas.

The York County area has never had much of a private school presence, unlike the Charleston area or the Midlands, where Oceanside and Gray are stationed. That might explain some of the local reaction.

“We don’t feel like we’re competing with anybody,” said Helms. “We’re not competing with the local school district there, at all. We’re just providing kids and parents with another option and another opportunity.”

There were some similar reactions to York Prep Academy’s basketball program, which openly recruited some of the area’s best middle school and high school basketball players for several years. But the Patriots weren’t operating under SCHSL rules at the time, which is what caused most of that friction. Herron said Legion principal Dr. T.K. Kennedy forwarded him a copy of a letter on Jan. 24 that will be sent to the SCHSL, asking that Legion be considered for membership at the SCHSL’s next executive committee meeting.

Legion’s unique school day format is one of the biggest differences. The emphasis on spending time at home with family, of being home by 5 p.m., is a worthy one. And Legion’s clearly-stated emphasis on athletics is not so different from what some public schools already do. There are numerous public high school sports teams in Rock Hill that spend the first or last class period of the day with their team’s coach in “football class” or “baseball class,” or some other sport.

Finally, Legion’s decision to allow Herron to become head football coach and athletic director could signal to Rock Hill School District 3 and other local districts that they may want to be more accommodating to that idea to retain coaching talent. When South Pointe’s athletic director job came open in 2018, district superintendent Will Cook was open to the idea of Herron being considered and Herron got an interview. But he didn’t ultimately get the job.

“I think they liked the way it’s set up now,” Herron said. “And I understand, there are pros and cons. An athletic director who is also a head football coach better have some great support with him.”

There is no explicit rule preventing head football coaches from also being ADs in District 3, but it’s not happened since the mid-2000’s when Rock Hill High’s Jim Ringer and Northwestern’s Jimmy Wallace held dual football coach/AD roles at their respective schools. There is a worthy debate to be had over whether dual football coach/ADs should exist, and Legion’s hiring of Herron may further publicize that debate. It’s just one of many that Legion Collegiate Academy will inevitably stir up.

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