There's a new kid on the block, and if you don't know the school is there it's quite easy to miss.
Harvest Christian Academy, nestled on the picturesque land formerly owned by the Safety Kleen Corp., at the intersection of Randall Road and Royal Blvd. on Elgin's west side, has become the newest Fox Valley school to join the IHSA as a competitive member.
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This is actually the fifth year Harvest Christian has had a high school, but the school is now a full-fledged member of the IHSA and will compete in state series competition in boys and girls cross country, girls volleyball, boys soccer and boys golf this fall; boys and girls basketball this winter, and then girls soccer and boys volleyball next spring.
Leading the way for the Lions' emergence into IHSA competition is athletic director David Lockwood, a former Oswego High School 3-sport athlete who spent the last 18 years in the business world, but who also coached wrestling at Batavia High School for 6 years and has been on the board of the Wasco travel baseball organization the past several years.
And Lockwood is more than excited about the opportunity he sees at Harvest Christian.
"There's a real potential for us to grow at a significant level," Lockwood says. "The grade school is busting out and the junior high is at a high level."
The high school itself has 106 students this year, drawing from up and down the Fox Valley, and enough that Lockwood and the school decided it was time to start competing at a higher level in athletics.
"I feel like we're ready in a few sports at the IHSA level," Lockwood said. "To me it's more about opportunity than challenge. From a competitive standpoint we'll have our challenges but it's a real opportunity for our athletes to grow and develop. I'm excited about it. I love athletics and I've been an athlete my whole life. I really like what athletics have done for me and how they shape lives. The discipline and hard work are things these kids will use in life."
Boys soccer coach Jason Acres, a 1994 Judson University graduate who played for the Eagles' highly successful men's soccer program, says taking the Lions' program to the IHSA level requires criteria both on and off the field.
"Off the field we look at the spiritual, the personal and the expectations," said Acres, who is the junior high pastor at Harvest Christian while also overseeing all student ministries. "On the field we want to be organized. Everyone has to know their roles and that even extends to how we line up our bags on the sidelines. We also have to be disciplined in our approach and hardworking.
"It's very participatory right now. A lot of these kids don't have a sense of competition yet. Playing within the IHSA will help develop that. If you don't have it you're going to get smashed all over the field. It's a new culture and changing the mindset is going to take some time."
One thing that isn't taking any time is Harvest Christian's entrance into a conference. While the Lions will play as an independent this school year, they will join the Northeastern Athletic Conference in the fall of 2012. Westminster Christian, Elgin's other private Christian high school, is also in the NAC.
"We were just voted in last week," Lockwood said. "That was one of the biggest obstacles, to get into a conference. Rockford Christian is leaving the conference so that allowed us the opening. It will make scheduling a lot easier and it will make a big difference for our athletes."
Harvest Christian also has the luxury of on campus facilities, something many small private schools don't enjoy. The woods-like setting around campus makes for better-than-average cross country courses, soccer fields are on campus and the Mitchell Swaback Athletic Center, which was added to the main facility in 2005, is first class for such a small school. It includes a fitness center and a state-of-the-art sound system and the gymnasium area has enough seating that Harvest Christian will surely be able to host Class 1A regional and sectional events.
Lockwood also glows over his coaching staff, which includes cross country coach Steve Bland, who competes for the United States triathlon team, and another Judson grad in Kelly Friestad, who will coach the girls basketball team.
"Our coaches are all world class," Lockwood says. "We're excited about the job we know they're going to do."
Another challenge Harvest Christian faces is the fact that Westminster Christian is a mile up the road, has gone through the growing pains and has now become competitive in virtually every sport it plays. But Lockwood says he and Westminster AD Rick Palmer have discussed those issues.
"Rick and I have talked about that and from a Christian standpoint we're on the same team and we're about the same things," Lockwood said. "They have tradition over there and they've been around. We're new and up and coming, so it's healthy competition. We're not against them; we're with them and we're on the same mission. Rick's been a great help to me so far."
So now the Lions' athletes have the challenge in front of them to compete at a higher level. It's clear their AD and his coaching staff are dedicated to making that happen.
"I'm aggressive and I'm a competitor," Lockwood said. "I want our teams to be excellent and strive for greatness. If we're going to do it we want to do it well. I'm not as concerned about wins and losses as the effort. For myself and the coaches it's not about the accolades and it's not about income. It's about the passion you have for what you do.
"I think we have an incredible opportunity here and it's exciting."