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STATE OF THE PROGRAM: Pinecrest Academy
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Pinecrest Academy's football team was one of three Paladins programs this season to reach the state playoffs for the first time since the school joined the Georgia High School Association.

Since Pinecrest Academy joined the Georgia High School Association in 2009, it has celebrated every time an athletic team has qualified for a state tournament or competition. This past season, the competition cheerleading, football and girls basketball teams joined the celebration for the first time, and there was great fanfare in the Paladins community.

But that will change going forward. The model of the future for Pinecrest athletics will be this season’s boys soccer team, which didn’t embrace a celebratory atmosphere after qualifying for the state playoffs or a first round victory but only after it advanced to the state quarterfinals.

“We’re not going to celebrate when football makes the playoffs anymore because that’s what’s going to be expected,” Pinecrest former soccer coach and incoming athletic director Chris Kane said. “Now we’ll celebrate when they win in the first round and go forward.”

There’s been plenty of change at Pinecrest this school year – a new head of school (Paul Parker), new athletic director (Kane) and now a new level of expectations going forward.

Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia talked with Kane and Parker about the school’s most successful season ever in the GHSA, the addition of new programs (cough cough wrestling cough cough) and the dream of one day building a natatorium (definition: aquatic center). 

Paglia: What were your overall impressions from start to finish of how the athletic year went at Pinecrest?

Kane: “Honestly, looking back, it was to be the most successful since we’ve been in GHSA with so many programs going to the playoffs or state tournament or state competition. It started with football and volleyball and cheerleading, and then went into girls basketball and swimming right into spring with the girls tennis team and both soccer teams. It has to be probably one of the most successful as far as Pinecrest goes. It didn’t result in any state championships; we’re still looking for the first one. But the boys soccer got further than any team has gotten. Girls soccer got further than they’ve ever gotten. The fact that so many teams qualified speaks about how far the athletic program has come here.

Parker: “And even the ones that didn’t make the playoffs – boys basketball – they were competitive. From what I understand, the transition from GISA to GHSA is a big thing. The competition is stronger. It requires the program itself to be much more disciplined, much more focused in order to get competitive. It makes the coaches step up their games in the way that they do the practices.”

Paglia: Coach Kane, you’ve said before that you want the expectation level to not just be to make the playoffs but to win in the playoffs.

Kane: “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell coaches. We’re not going to celebrate when football makes the playoffs anymore because that’s what’s going to be expected. Now we’ll celebrate when they win in the first round and go forward.

“With soccer, it’s easy for me to speak about soccer because I was in charge of both, but for the boys when they won their first-round game there was no celebrating, because it was the third year in a row they’d been to the [second round], and it was now we’ve got to get over the hump. For the girls, it was a celebration because no girls team had won [in the playoffs] yet.

“That’s what you want to get in place. You just want to keep raising the expectations because the kids will surprise you and they’ll meet those expectations and go further if you let them. It’s pretty much the same as the classroom.”

Parker: “The size and the kind of program Pinecrest has developed, it is – especially in the Class A market – in a nice spot. We are big enough that we’re able to offer a wide range of programs, but we’re small enough that everyone gets to participate in those programs.

“From an athletic standpoint it’s a different challenge. We’re not selective about who’s on the team. You get selective about playing time. You don’t get to pick just the best. You kind of have to take everybody if you’re going to have enough to field a team. Which means there is a lot of value in the hustle in the players and the ability of the coaches to draw out a tremendous amount from the kids.

“We’re now as a school getting bigger that we also have a large enough player pool that we’re able to be competitive from the sports standpoint and attractive for athletes to come too as well.”

Paglia: How did you like the new region?

Kane: “I think overall it was a positive. For football and basketball, it was a lot easier on the students just as far as travel goes. And with that, because we’re in close proximity to a lot of the schools, there’s a little more of a rivalry to be set up.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been missing since we’ve been in GISA, is who’s going to be our rival. When we left GISA, it was Holy Spirit because they were someone who we were always competing against, even for students, because we were the only Catholic schools. So when we jumped out and came into GHSA, it was, well, for soccer it’s this school, and for baseball it’s this school, and for football maybe it’s George Walton maybe it’s not.

“And now, because of our proximity to St. Francis and King’s Ridge and Mt. Pisgah and Fellowship, it’s great, because there is a rivalry. It goes even off campus with Twitter and things like that and trolling and all that fun stuff, as long as it’s clean and good-hearted. We’re seeing that rivalry. It’s been great. The region was great on that aspect. And I think the school because of that is going to have a bigger profile because all of those schools I mentioned, we’re competing for the same type of student.

“I think all the coaches are happy with it. I think the only coaches who aren’t happy with it are tennis and cross country, because they got left in the old region, so they’re still travelling up to Athens and all that. Hopefully, after the next round [of realignment] we’ll be able to get them pulled into [Region 6-A].

Paglia: I heard you guys are starting a wrestling program for the 2015-16 school year.

Kane: “Yes, we’re going to start it up. One of the benefits of being a pre-K through 12 is there are a lot of up and coming student athletes, and believe it or not, there are a lot of kids and families in the lower school, and even in the middle school, that are already involved with wrestling. When you start looking at some of the teams in our region – the Mt. Pisgahs and the St. Francis and Fellowship – they already have it. It became a question of, why don’t we?

“We already had a teacher on staff here that has started two wrestling programs, Mr. [Martin] Podmolik, who’s been with us for three years in the social studies department. He came down from Wisconsin, and up there he started two programs.

“It was sort of like a no-brainer. It just fit perfectly. It’s a winter sport. It’s not taking any other athletes from another sport, because we only offer swimming and basketball, and most of your basketball players aren’t going to bleed into wrestling. And it was really beneficial in the long run for the football program where it will keep those guys in the weight room and give them an outlet with their aggression and become more aggressive, which will ultimately pay dividends on the field. I was just lucky enough that Mr. Parker was like, well, let’s see if we can find a place, and if we can find a place why not?”

Paglia: How did you like the addition of lacrosse in the varsity program?

Kane: “Honestly, it was great because it gave so many more kids an opportunity to play. The boys teams had I think 25-27 guys, a lot of freshmen and sophomores. The girls I think had 20 girls, and I think 14 were freshmen. It was great in that aspect.

“Where it became difficult … was the logistics. There weren’t many times when the soccer program or the lacrosse programs had an opportunity to actually practice on a field at Pinecrest because there were always games going on. One of the things we’re going to try to do next season is to coordinate the schedule. …

Parker: “The thing about it is because it’s new it generates a lot of passion and energy both in the student athletes and the parents, and that’s always a great thing to have. It’s always hard when you’re growing a program from the middle school; when you do want to make the call to field that varsity team? Doing it this year on the one hand was a tough year for the kids involved because so many of them were so young, but it sure did set them up well to be more competitive next year. You couldn’t have asked more from them in terms of effort, and they really love their sport.

“When you’re sharing those facilities, there are so many games – we look forward to our advancement office finishing our capital campaign so we can build our new [football] stadium.”

Paglia: Is that in the plans for the near future?

Parker: “Depends on how fast we can raise the money. We’d like to have it open in a year and a half.

“Where are all the trees are near the football field, all the trees go down and it’s built into the hill. The visiting stands are built into the hill, and the home stands are up tall. They’ll be like two stories so you can see it from the road. Then you have all the concessions under them and the field house. It’s priced and specced. If we can finish the campaign by December, we can be breaking ground in the spring.“

Kane: “It’ll have turf and everything.”

Paglia: And a press box?!

Kane: “Yes, it’ll have a real press box.”

Paglia: Are there any other big things on the horizon for Pinecrest?

Parker: “We joined GHSA four years ago, our participation and numbers of sports we offered were down here. Four years later, we’re now making the playoffs in all kinds of sports. We’ve increased the number of sports we’re participating in, and we’ve increased the size of the school by 30 to 40 percent. Pinecrest is even now as a school it’s 20 years old. It’s still in its adolescence, and it’s growing like an adolescent. We’ve grown, and now our pants are too short and our shirts are too tight, and we’re seeing our buttons stretch in terms of the facilities.

“The biggest objective we have is now to get the facilities to catch up to the quality of coaching and athletes and the programs that we have and to try to keep up with that. We’re handling it right now with really creative scheduling and an awful lot of heroic patience on the part of all of our coaches and things like that. Hopefully in a year we’ll be telling you about how we’re breaking ground. The nice thing with a stadium is that we don’t have to stop anything, and then once we build that we stop using this – because ultimately the athletics complex and the high school gym and the fine arts building and the swimming pool and stuff like that go on to where …”

Paglia: Wait – swimming pool, for real?

Parker: “Oh yeah! Are you kidding me? We have more kids in swimming than we have in soccer.”

Kane: “Not really, but – it’s close, but not equal.”

Parker: “My son’s a swimmer at Catholic University, so that’s why I joke. But you’ll have a quality natatorium, and you’ll have 1,000 kids on campus just as you use it offseason for all the swimming year-round.”

Kane: “The benefit of Mr. Parker coming in is he’s coming from the West Coast and Bellarmine Preparatory School where his oldest went and second son went. They are nationally renowned for water polo and swimming. So one of the first questions he had looking around was, where are we going to put the swimming pool? Everybody was like, what? Except for the swim coach. It makes total sense because no one else has a swimming pool in the county, other than the Cumming Aquatic Center.”

Parker: “And we’re K through 12. All these kids are swimming. We’re in athletics not just because we want to make the paper. For our kids, with the education that we want to do, the athletic experience is an essential part of that, and it’s an essential part of it when you’re in high school, but it’s also an essential part of it when you’re in elementary school. It takes an awful lot of mental discipline, focus – it’s not easy to do, especially when you’re like 8. But it’s one of those things that 8 year olds can do.”

Paglia: How do you think the transition from former athletic director Tom Palmer went?

Parker: “We’ve had a great team in the athletic department. With Chris coming on, Tom was really great in understanding kind of the athletic culture that we wanted to build and the athletic experience that we wanted to give the parents and the students and how that fit in with that we were doing programmatically, and really laid some excellent foundations.

“What Chris brings in all of his actual coaching experience. We’ve kind of got the look and structure of where athletics fit in the school, and now comes the work that really does help us go to that next level, because it’s going to be our coaches that deliver that. It’s like what he keeps saying, his first goal is to make the coach’s life easier, and I know that’s not what he means. What he means is able to actually focus on coaching so they can be more successful coaching their kids and not dealing with all other kinds of things. Having been a successful coach, he’s going to be able to do that and help build on what Tom built for us in the past.

“The other part equally long term, and I’ve seen him start to do this now too, is obviously where we go in the future depends on the coaches that we bring. As a small school, we really don’t have separate coaches. We have to have teacher-coaches, and they have to work as teachers in order to be successful as coaches. And honestly, great coaches are also great teachers. Having someone who is a great teacher and great coach as well helps us identify those people. Chris has really been involved in the teacher recruitment process, and has a great passion for teachers who also can coach and are good at both.”

“Tom helped us build a culture of meaningful athletics. It wasn’t just something a bunch of kids were doing on a field. It felt meaningful and integral to the Pinecrest experience. Chris gets to build on that by concentrating on the coaches he has and the coaches that we’re going to get. We’re excited of both where we’ve been and where we’re going to go.”

Kane: “I can’t wait. I can’t even express how excited I am to get started.”

Parker: “A week after he gets eliminated in the soccer playoffs I get the completely rewritten from scratch student athletic handbook with a table of contents. And that’s in the middle of him trying to wrap up the year, so God only knows what else he’s going to come up with in June and July.

“We’re going to work hard around here. His students for years have worked hard to keep up with Mr. Kane, and I think Pinecrest coaches are going to be working hard to keep up with coach Kane in charge.”