ACU loaded with local prep football players for first season

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                </div>  The addition of a new college football program in Arizona will give 76 local athletes, most of them from area high schools, a chance to stay home and continue […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The addition of a new college football program in Arizona will give 76 local athletes, most of them from area high schools, a chance to stay home and continue their playing careers.  Some of those 76 on the 101-man roster at Arizona Christian University might not even be playing college ball this year if not for this major commitment by the small Christian college in northeast Phoenix.

This is not an opportunity at the NCAA Division I or Division II level.  Arizona Christian is an NAIA school that is a long way down on the pecking order in college sports.  But it’s an opportunity to continue playing and improving.

For some, it could be a stepping stone to a chance to play at a higher level down the road, similar to what junior-college programs offer.

The Firestorm will open their inaugural season with two home games.  That home-field advantage is generally a welcome opportunity to get the year off on a winning note, but it’s a two-edged sword for a brand new program that would probably prefer a game or two on the road to work out the kinks before taking the stage in front of a home crowd.

Head coach Donnie Yantis has just four weeks to finish preparing for the season opener Aug. 23 against Evangel University from Springfield, Mo.  The game will be played at Shadow Mountain High School, which will be used for all home games since ACU does not have a stadium.

The 1,000 or so fans that showed up for spring practice are a good indication that there will be local interest in the games.  But Shadow Mountain’s stadium, just a mile-and-a-half from campus, will provide seating for 6,000 fans – which should be more than enough right now.

Yantis, who was hired as the school’s first football coach after 14 years as head coach at Paradise Valley High School,  has assembled a staff by hiring coaches from the local area, or with ties to the state.  Jeff Bowen, his assistant head coach and offensive line coach, is an Arizona State grad and coached 11 years at Westview High School.  Yantis’ defensive coordinator, Adam Olson, put in time at Phoenix Christian, and recruiting efforts are being led by Brandon Bethel, who coached at Shadow Mountain High School and will also serve as running backs coach at ACU.

According to ACU President Len Munsil, the school conducted a national search for its first head coach before deciding to pluck one from its own back yard.  Yantis was a highly-regarded high-school coach that had been endorsed by coaches from the ASU football program.  He spent the last 13 years at Paradise Valley High and took his teams to nine playoff appearances in that time.  His 94-70 record makes him the school’s winningest football coach.

When he was hired last December he knew that Arizona would be where he would cast his recruiting nets first.  “We believe in the quality and depth of Arizona high-school football,” he said, “and we believe, as the only small-college football program in the state, that we can attract and compete nationally by recruiting outstanding local athletes. We will recruit nationally, but we will start here in our own back yard.”

Results from this year’s nine-game schedule will soon show whether that approach is going to hold up, or whether he will have to expand his recruiting reach sooner rather than later.

The third game on the schedule should provide a reasonable barometer for where ACU stands in its development because the Firestorm will be playing another newbie, George Fox University in Oregon.  There are seven new college football programs beginning this season, three in the NCAA and four in the NAIA, and ACU and George Fox are two of those.

Those seven additions will bring the total of schools across all NCAA divisions and the NAIA that have football programs to 767.  According to the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame (NFF), that puts the number at an all-time high.

“No other sport contributes more to the vibrancy of a college campus than football, and the trend of adding programs continues full force,” says NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell.  There were 12 programs added last year and nine scheduled to launch for the 2015 season.

There are numerous reasons for a college  to consider adding football.  It can be used as a tool to increase enrollment, to address gender imbalances in the sports offerings, raise the school’s profile, and help connect with alumni.  But the one constant is the money it takes to add a major program like football.

Munsil estimates it will cost about $100,000 to get the ACU program off the ground.  The school hopes to cover those expenses through increased enrollment (the campus currently has about 600 students) and donor support.

Only time will tell, but right now there are 76 local athletes that are thankful for the chance to play at the next level, and to be able to do it without going out of state.

“Each year, hundreds of Arizona players go out of state to play small-college football,” Munsil points out. “We are excited to be able to provide an opportunity for many of those student-athletes to continue their careers in front of family and friends.”

In about four weeks, we’ll find out just how many of those family and friends will show up in triple-digit temperatures to support the new game in town.