For more than 50 years, Lebanon County has been home to seven Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association-sanctioned school districts. Recently that number increased by one.
New Covenant Christian School, which is located on Route 72 in North Lebanon township, officially became a PIAA-member school back in May. This fall, the Flames will operate as a PIAA school, although their schedules will include a limited number of PIAA opponents.
The bottom line is that New Covenant will be able to compete for PIAA Class A championships and be eligible to play in District Three Class A tournaments, where applicable. And of course it means that Lebanon Catholic is now not the smallest PIAA-sanctioned school in Lebanon County.
New Covenant’s enrollment has been estimated to be approaching 300 students, for grades kindergarten through 12th. In the past, the Flames had played a strictly independent schedule against mostly Christian schools and academies.
“The advantages are that the kids are playing for something, as far as championships,” said Justyn Shepler, New Covenant Christian’s brand-new athletic director. “We’re trying to give the kids an opportunity to compete. It shows we have an athletic program that’s doing well.”
New Covenant Christian School sponsors five different sports for its student-athletes – boys’ soccer in the fall, girls’ volleyball in the fall, boys’ and girls’ basketball in the winter and girls’ soccer in the spring. All of them have been sanctioned by the PIAA.
“It was getting harder and harder to get teams to play us because we weren’t PIAA,” said Shepler. “To be accepted by the PIAA, home-schoolers can’t play. They have to be enrolled in our school. So I guess a negative was having to say good-bye to some of the home-schooled families we had good relationships with. And a downside is the short-time schedule we’ve had to deal with this year. But the upsides far outweigh the downsides.”
Because the Flames only became sanctioned by the PIAA two months ago and most schools already had their athletic schedules for the 2011-12 school year set, New Convenant will play limited schedules in all of their sports. But Shepler expects New Covenant to be able to play a complete schedule in 2012-13.
“It’s more of a headache than it’s not,” he said.
New Covenant will not compete in the Lancaster-Lebanon League, like every other school in Lebanon County does, except for Palmyra. Instead, Shepler said that it is his hope that the Flames will become a member of the Commonwealth Christian Athletic Conference, which is home to some other PIAA-sanctioned Christian schools/academies, for the 20012-13 school year.
“We’re looking at the CCAC,” said Shepler. “It’s a bunch of Christian schools together. But we’re in District Three. We’re hoping that by next school year we’ll ve in a league.”
The move by New Convenant to the PIAA was initiated a couple of years ago, before Shepler took over his athletic director duties.
“It’s an application,” Shepler explained. “You pay the application fee and you’ve got to make sure you meet all the criterion. You have to make sure all of your field sizes are correct. There’s certain criterion you have to fall under before the application can be accepted.
“I started last year in a different role,” Shepler continued. “And they (administrators) were working on it last year. I think it’s been a two or three-year process of looking at it. We assumed we were going to be accepted. It really wasn’t a surprise.”
New Covenant’s new status could spur some new Lebanon County rivalries, especially with Lebanon Catholic. The possibility of New Covenant and Lebanon Catholic meeting in the District Three Class A playoffs is very real.
“I would say ‘Yes,'” said Shepler when asked about the possibility of playing Lebanon Catholic during the regular season. “I could see it in basketball, even soccer. Our kids are up for a challenge. If you asked our student-athletes, I think they’d say they’d like that. When you’re playing against teams, you want a challenge. And our kids expressed that they were missing that.
“You get a different array of competition in the PIAA,” Shepler added. “You get a different array of talent, a different array of skill. It’s much higher with PIAA teams.”