John Cate
The Sanford Herald

It’s been expected for a while that Grace Christian School’s athletic programs would move out of the 1A ranks of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association following this school year. The Crusaders announced their new destination this week.

Grace athletics director Nate Rhine sent out a press release about the move, which came as a result of the fast-growing school reaching 2A enrollment figures this year.

“It is no secret that the Grace Christian School Crusaders have had tremendous growth and success in recent years,” stated Rhine, who himself coached the Crusaders to the 1A men’s soccer title in the fall. Grace was a founding member of Mid Carolina Conference (MCC) and over the past five years has achieved great success. Recently, the Crusader teams, from middle school, JV and varsity have dominated many of the athletic offerings in the MCC.”

It was only a matter of time before other conferences came calling. The success and growth has not gone unnoticed by other area conferences looking to improve their membership and competition levels. Grace classifies as a 2A school in the NCISAA for the 22-23 academic year. The 2A tag may not last long, as the Crusaders will hold 3A enrollment numbers for the 23-24 academic year. It doesn’t look like the growth stops there as the 4A state classification could be on the horizon within the next few years.

Grace could have remained in the MCC going forward, as the NCISAA has no restriction on teams from multiple classifications being in the same conference. However, the league is simply not competitive for the Crusaders in many respects. During this basketball season, a number of women’s basketball games involving Grace were forfeited. Rhine was able to replace these games on the schedule, but the program is better off in a stronger league.

After studying all of the possibilities, the Crusaders will join the Raleigh Area Athletic Conference (RAAC), currently a split 2A/3A conference which includes Neuse Christian School, Thales Academy-Apex, Thales Academy-Rolesville, St. Thomas More, and Friendship Christian School.

The RAAC stood out as the right fit,” said Rhine. “The RAAC is made up of both 2A and 3A schools in the triangle area. These private NCISAA schools allow for reasonable travel schedules, increased competition and good fan bases. In addition, the 2A and 3A combo conference is one where the Crusaders can settle in for a while.”

Head of School, Stuart Shumway, had this to say, “Our athletes deserve the opportunity to play and develop at the highest level possible. We believe that the RAAC will provide strong competitive opportunities for our student athletes and we look forward to developing relationships with the member schools.”

“The level of interest from student athletes, coaches and parents to be a part of Grace Christian School is something special,” said Rhine. Parents want their kids in an environment that challenges them athletically, but also doesn’t sacrifice values to win. Grace is a special place where families and players want to be. They are challenged, valued and developed in ways that help parents in the development of their children, both athletically and spiritually.” These are exciting times.”

Rhine continued, “In joining the RAAC, we already feel at home. The schools in this conference are schools we can build and grow together to make this conference one of the strongest in the NCISAA. Excellence will continue to be our expectation. Our opponents may change, but competing at the highest level continues to be our standard.”

The Crusaders may be the newcomer to the RAAC next year, but school officials pointedly stated they will not be the underdogs. Grace is expected to continue to compete for both conference and state championships.