George Crace takes on mind, body and soul as Christian high school's leader
Of dreams, athletic dynasties are sometimes made. That is exactly what George Crace hopes will happen with Horizon Christian High, which opens to students in September.
Crace, who went 114-98 through 22 years as the head football coach at David Douglas, West Linn and Wilsonville and guided the Wilsonville Wildcats to the 2004 Class 3A championship, wants to take Horizon Christian to the pinnacle of the state's prep athletic hierarchy.
'Our motto is, 'Build scholars and champions,' ' says Crace, 55, who will serve as principal, athletic director and head football coach of the new school. 'We understand academics are very important, and we'll provide opportunities for excellence. We're serious about that. At the same time, we want to build (athletic) champions. It's not going to happen next year, but at some point we expect to be as competitive in athletics as any school in the state.'
'George has a heart and a passion for wanting to build an athletic program that would rival any in the state, and he has the ability to do that,' says Steve Glavan, an associate pastor at Grace Community Church, whose administrators have made the new school possible.
The Hawks must take baby steps first. Enrollment for the new high school - located just south of Tualatin High, close to Interstate 5 - is expected to be about 50 for the first year, with no seniors. Crace says he anticipates about 15 students turning out for football and has a six-game schedule to be played at the 3A level under the Oregon School Acvitities Association's new, six-classification plan.
'It'll be a developmental year,' says Crace, who has a coaching staff lined up that includes former pro linemen Sam Holm and Roger Levasa. 'We've told our athletes to make a year's commitment to being developed. Sometimes we get so busy in trying to win games, we don't put in the front-end work. I've hired a trainer (Scott Olson) who will stress pre-habilitation and strength training and allow our young athletes a chance to take the time to 'sharpen the saw.''
Ambitious athletic plans
Horizon Christian also will field teams in volleyball, soccer, basketball, cross country, track and field, golf, baseball and softball for the 2006-07 academic year. Eventually, Crace hopes to add wrestling and lacrosse.
Crace's 10-year plan includes a list of athletic facilities to feature three football-soccer fields, including a stadium with seating for 5,000 and a FieldTurf surface that would be ready for the 2007 season. 'We hope the OSAA will consider us as a site for playoff games,' he says.
Grace Community Church owns 40 acres of land, plus an option to purchase five more. The church bought 47 acres in 2001, then sold some of it at a tidy profit, money that will go into the construction project. Besides the football-soccer fields, there will be a large gymnasium with three basketball courts and an athletic training center that can be used for practice by teams during inclement weather.
'We'll be under construction for the next 10 years,' Crace says. 'At build-out, we'll have 500,000 square feet of covered building, including the school itself.'
Church leaders and school fundraisers raised $11 million to complete the first phase, which allows the school to open this fall and includes a sand-based natural football-soccer field that will be ready for use in 2007.
'We're in the range of (needing to raise) $30 to $35 million build-out, if we do everything we hope to do,' says Glavan, the school's development director.
Under Crace's 10-year plan, Horizon Christian would increase its enrollment to about 1,000 and participate in athletics at the highest, 6A level.
'We hope to be competitive enough that our teams will be invited to fly to other states to play the top teams from that area,' says Crace, who uses Corvallis' Santiam Christian High as a means of comparison and offers Valley Christian in San Jose, Calif., as a larger model.
It is an ambitious project spearheaded by an ambitious man - Crace, a Milwaukie High graduate who earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard and received his master's degree in education from Stanford.
Lions roared under coach
Crace became a high school head football coach for the first time at David Douglas in 1979 and enjoyed major success at West Linn, taking the Lions to a 10-2 record en route to the state quarterfinals in 1992. Two years later, led by quarterback Cade McNown, Crace's Lions reached the state semifinals.
In recent years, Crace has developed a relationship with chief figures at Grace Community Church, including Glavan; pastor Stan Russell, who played baseball and basketball at George Fox; and former Oregon State football center Levasa, a senior associate pastor.
'I found the pastors have a heart for athletics,' Crace says. 'They always use sports metaphors in their sermons. And they support youth and sports very much.'
A couple of years ago, Russell mentioned the impending school project to Crace and wondered whether the coach would like to be involved. Last fall, just before ground was broken on the school building in October, Russell mentioned it again.
'I told Pastor Stan, 'Talk to me when football season is over,' ' Crace says.
It just so happens Crace qualified for early retirement as a teacher in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District after the past academic year. The timing was right.
'I call it divine appointment,' Crace says. 'I felt like it was the right thing to do at this point in my life.'
Members of the church administration had observed Crace with admiration during his time at Wilsonville, for both his coaching ability and the way he dealt with his athletes.
'He has a philosophy that considers students from an overall education standpoint, not just athletics, and has marvelous academic credentials to back that up,' Glavan says. 'And he has such a heart for young people.'
Taking on three roles at once - principal, athletic director, football coach - seems almost overwhelming, even at a small school.
'That was partially his call, as we spoke to him about what role makes the most sense,' Glavan says. 'None of us anticipate it will be a permanent situation. His first and foremost responsibility is as principal.'
Crace is interviewing every prospective student and arranging for teachers and coaches. 'But I won't be doing (all three jobs) forever,' he says. 'I might be able to be the football coach who hires the next principal.'
School is nondemoninational
Grace Community is an Assemblies of God church, and services will be held Sundays at the school beginning in August. Horizon Christian will be a nondenominational evangelical school, with students required to take a Bible study class all four years.
'A student does not have to be a believer in Christ but has to agree to a Christian code of conduct by way of representing our school,' Crace says.
Annual tuition is $6,500 per student, 'on the lower end of private schools in the Portland area,' he says. 'Our board of elders wants to make it a school where any student can go, regardless of financial means. We would love to have people donate to a fund for tuition assistance.'
The new school will need substantial contributions to reach Crace's goals.
'We're looking to raise $10 million for the academic side and at least another $10 million to take the final step forward for athletic facility construction,' he says.
Some will question whether Crace's dreams for the school are realistic.
'We don't have any misconceptions that all of this will happen at once,' Glavan says.
The board of elders anticipates complaints that Horizon Christian's focus on sports will be to the detriment of a student's education.
'There are going to be people who look at what George is doing and wonder if this is an overemphasis on athletics,' Glavan says. 'But we are committed to making this a school that shows excellence in academics, the arts, activities and athletics. While George puts a great emphasis on athletics, he is also putting feelers out to hire excellent music teachers and build a drama program.'
Crace says he has commitments from students in Hillsboro, Newberg, Canby, Tigard, Tualatin, Sherwood, Wilsonville, West Linn and Lake Oswego. He makes no apologies that he is hiring teachers with interest or a background in athletics.
'We're getting special people who want to provide a quality education,' he says, 'and have a heart for athletics.'