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Horizon Christian football deals with growing pains
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Horizon rising freshman Greg Carson stayed a few minutes after practice to work on passing with Warriors offensive coordinator Putsy Gliatta. - photo by Brian Paglia Forsyth County News

On Wednesday morning, the breeze rolled into Bennett Park and onto its football field, but it gave no respite from the heat to Horizon Christian Academy’s football team.

Warriors head coach Charles Wiggins walked in the middle of a circle of nine players lying on the ground dressed in shorts, T-shirts and plain dark navy helmets. Already, they had run 100-yard sprints.

"They were throwing up after the second one," said Putsy Gliatta, the Warriors’ offensive coordinator.

Now, Wiggins had them stretching before the next set of grueling exercises.

"I’m adding a new stretch today," Wiggins said.

Wiggins walked over to a player lying on his back. He brought the player’s legs together and moved them up and down, from inches off the grass to perpendicular to the ground, eventually gaining the rhythm and speed of a machine cog.

"How many, coach?" Warriors rising junior Michael Walker said.

"Twenty-five," Wiggins said to several groans.

"Yes sir," Walker said.

The Warriors stayed in unison through the first couple of reps, but soon they were scattered.

Wiggins walked over to a player not moving with his arms spread on the ground.

"You know how many of these I had to do in the Coast Guard?" Wiggins said.

The player resumed the exercise.

The Warriors weren’t finished. Soon they did frog-man salutes, scissor-kicks and sit-ups. They took a break to drink some water and finished practice by doing several variations of push-ups.

"A lot of these kids are going to go both ways," said Tom Santoro, Horizon Christian’s defensive coordinator. "They’ve got to be in shape."

It was around this time last year when Horizon Christian’s football team disappeared. Wiggins, who came over to Horizon Christian after eight years at Pinecrest Academy, took over for Bill Forman, who left for Athens Academy after just one season. Wiggins had 12 players come out for spring practice, but they went through all the high school football rituals, including a spring game.

When summer’s voluntary strength and conditioning came around, seven players left. With just five players remaining, Wiggins had to shut down the program.

After three seasons of football, Horizon Christian left its adopted home field at Bennett Park empty in the fall.

"It was tough," Wiggins said.

Walker had been playing football since the fifth grade. He was a freshman on Horizon Christian’s last team in 2011. So when football was gone, Walker knew how to fill his time.

He hit the weights.

The tight end and linebacker spent much of his time in the barn-converted-training facility on his family’s property preparing for this season, trusting that enough rising eighth and ninth graders would come out for the team to make it viable again.

"I love football," Walker said. "I want to go on to play college ball, and not being able to play one of my high school years was disappointing."

The signs that football could return to Horizon Christian started this past spring. Over 20 students signed up and went through spring practice. They learned Gliatta’s terminology to run the spread offense and Santoro’s vision to run a multiple three-man front defense.

Ten or so have routinely shown up this summer to the Warriors’ voluntary Monday, Wednesday and Friday practices. More attend strength training sessions at Walker’s barn on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wiggins, Santoro and Gliatta are back to having coaches meetings on a weekly basis.

The Warriors have joined the Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association, a new high school athletic organizing body in its inaugural season that’s pulled schools from the Independent Christian Schools of Georgia-Alabama and GISA leagues. Wiggins was able to get the team brand new Revolution helmets thanks to previous relationships he built in the community from his time at Pinecrest.

Horizon Christian’s disadvantages are real. Lack of depth could mean injuries are truly crippling. Some players are so new to the sport their strength, endurance and fundamentals are rudimentary at best. The school has no facilities of its own, so it leases all of its fields from the county.

But pretty soon, high school football will return to Bennett Park. A sprinkling of family, friends and Horizon Christian students will fill the stands again. And Walker and his teammates will have the same goal as Buford or Norcross or Camden County – to win a championship.

"We have heart," Walker said. "We have a small school, but we pack the same punch as a Class 6A school. … We’re not as good as them, we don’t have as many numbers as them, but we’ve got more heart than them."