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MONTGOMERY --- Northside Methodist Academy will usher in a New Era this fall.

After eight years as an Alabama Independent Schools Association (AISA) member, the school officially became members of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) on Wednesday when the AHSAA Central Board approved the school’s membership into the association.

The action came during a Central Board meeting at the AHSAA offices in Montgomery.

The Knights will be an AHSAA non-classified associate member for two years, effective after this school year ends. As an associate member, NMA will compete against AHSAA members in all sports and abide by the AHSAA by-laws and constitution, but will not be eligible for championship or postseason play.

The Knights won’t be eligible for championship play until the 2022-2023 academic year. They will also not be assigned a classification until reclassification in 2021. The school is expected to be a borderline Class 2A or Class 3A program – mostly likely 3A -- during that reclassification.

“We are excited,” Northside Methodist Head of School Bill Reif said moments after the meeting. “It opens up a lot of doors for us. There are a lot of resources available.

"We are looking forward to being more of a part of the Wiregrass community athletically and as a school than we have been in the past.”

Reif said Northside Methodist will have more access to resources such as “coaches education, continuing education for athletic directors and for us as administrators on how to keep moving our athletic program moving forward and how to use it to do what we want to do, which is build kids. I think there will be a lot of sharpening things for us.”

The school, which has existed since 1975, has participated in the AISA the last eight years. Prior to that, it was a member of the Alabama Christian Education Association.

“I am excited,” Northside Methodist Principal Robiann Gilbert said of joining the AHSAA. “It is kind of the unknown, but I don’t see it any different than when we went from ACEA to AISA.”

Northside Methodist, which is located on Redmond Road in north Dothan, offers athletic opportunities in football, volleyball and girls and boys cross country in the fall, girls and boys basketball in the winter plus baseball, softball, girls and boys soccer, girls and boys track/field, girls and boys tennis and golf in the spring.

Reif and Gilbert talked about Northside Methodist with Central Board members and fielded questions during a roughly 15-minute presentation at Wednesday’s meeting. The board then unanimously approved the school for admission into the association.

“We are honored that they were interested in joining the association and were very impressed with their presentation, their mission as well as their education value in what they are teaching through their environment,” AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese said. “We are really glad to have them as members.”

Reif said several factors played into the school’s desire to join the AHSAA.

“It will cut down on our travel, which is a safety and a time in class factor and that is a huge thing,” Reif said. “For example, taking 60 basketball kids 100 miles (for games) and bringing them back and not getting back until 10 or 11 at night and sometimes later are disruptions to kids’ lives, a disruption to their academics. That will be a huge impact.”

Currently in the AISA, Northside Methodist competes against only one athletic program less than an hour away (Abbeville Christian) with two teams roughly an hour away (Pike Liberal Arts and Lakeside). Potentially in the AHSAA, the Knights will have close to a dozen programs within 45 minutes, including city schools Dothan, Houston Academy and Providence Christian.

The close proximity will also help financially in bigger crowds at home games. Recently, Reif noted a home basketball game against a program near Montgomery featured only seven visiting fans.

“It will be an impact on us economically as the attendance at games will increase dramatically,” Reif said.

Reif believes Northside’s entry into the AHSAA also aligns more with the school’s culture and beliefs. While he stressed recruiting hasn’t been a big issue at NMA, joining the AHSAA, which has stricter recruiting rules, should keep a better balance against opposing programs.

“Athletics is a lot of building our culture and in a culture where there is a lot of recruiting going on like there is in the AISA -- and that’s not meant to be negative toward the AISA, but it is part of their culture -- it doesn’t help maintain our school culture when you are consistently bringing athletes in during the 10th and 11th grade,” Reif said.

“This will force us to do something that we want to do, which is to build the athletically program in sixth and seventh grade and use athletics to build kids starting in seventh and eighth grade. To me that has become the biggest positive of the whole thing.”

Gilbert added, “It is easier to get students to buy into your culture when they are younger and to be OK with our rules, which are a little stricter than what some are used to,” Gilbert said. “Sometimes when you get kids in the 10th grade, they are like, 'What?' If they start at Northside in fifth grade, they get used to it and there is no bucking of the system.”

Northside Methodist’s board voted in November to seek membership into the AHSAA and AHSAA Associate Executive Director Alvin Briggs and Assistant Director Denise Ainsworth met with officials of the Dothan private school and toured the school and its facilities on Jan. 10.

“They have been incredibly gracious from the get-go,” Reif said, referring to AHSAA officials. “I expected more skepticism toward a private school coming into the Alabama High School Athletic Association, but that has not been the case from the very first phone call. They have been welcoming and they have been encouraging. Denise and Alvin were spectacular on their visit.”

The feeling was mutual on the AHSAA’s part.

“They (Briggs and Ainsworth) said they would fit in perfectly,” Savarese said. “That they were similar to other member schools within our association and that their mission of developing student-athletes and using the platform of sports to teach educational lessons fits our mission.”

On the playing field and arenas, Reif wasn’t sure how the Knights might fare in their inaugural season in their new association, but was optimistic the school could be competitive.

“I hear our coaches and they have different opinions on that,” Reif said. “I have watched so little of teams around us, so I don’t know how that will be. I know we have built a very stable athletic culture.

"Thanks to our new athletic training center (weight and conditioning), our kids will be stronger and faster. I think our coaching staff has continued to improve with additions like Mike Mordecai (in baseball).

“So the two years of associate membership in not being able to compete in the state playoffs, I don’t think that is anything for us. I don’t know if we expect to be at a level of competing for state (titles) the next two years.

“I think our coaches, though, are optimistic of being competitive. What that will look like in wins and losses, I don’t know. Our kids are largely excited about the challenge. It will be an adjustment period, but I think they will be ready for it.”

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