In a switch, school putting the 'athlete' in student-athlete

At the end of a school year when eight of its 51 graduating seniors are on their way to collegiate athletic scholarships, headmaster Frank Cantadore points out that First Assembly's sports successes are bringing more attention to a school that has always prided itself in its academic reputation and Christian principles.

It's hard to deny that two state football championships in the past three years and two straight state basketball championship game appearances have shed a new light on the Concord parochial school.

Though school officials are careful to avoid letting First Assembly become a "half-baked jock school," as Cantadore says, they are excited that their students are becoming known as student-athletes.

Cantadore admits that it's not uncommon for a coffee-shop acquaintance to ask about the latest rumor on which transfer student is likely to become the Eagles' newest star.

Dave Murr, who just finished his third year as First Assembly's athletic director and boys varsity basketball coach, says the school appeals to a variety of students. Its athletic successes, he says, are simply a combination of "being blessed with a lot of good kids and a lot of good coaches."

Cantadore, a long-time coach, has placed his personal touch on First Assembly. When he was hired as headmaster five years ago, part of his job was serving as athletic director.

Since he shed the AD position three years ago, Cantadore has remained active in the athletic program, coaching middle school and junior varsity basketball and varsity baseball.

Hanging from the wall at one end of Cantadore's neatly decorated office is a banner displaying John Wooden's "Twelve Lessons of Leadership." On the opposite side of the room, a couple of wooden baseball bats, a football and some mini-basketballs complement shelves of books and binders.

First Assembly has hung its own banners in recent years - for two state football championships in 2007 and 2009. When the Eagles were building their football program between 2003 and 2006, the team's record was 12-28.

In 2007, the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association split its football playoffs into two divisions for the first time. Craig Kean was the coach who led the Eagles to the first Division II state championship.

The following year, First Assembly's football program gained more fame by hiring former Carolina Panther Mike Minter as coach. The Eagles followed its state championship with another title game appearance in 2008 and a second championship game victory in 2009.

From those teams, three players signed college football scholarships: all-state lineman Ainsley Miller (Gardner-Webb), all-state multi-purpose player Brandon Stegall (Campbell), and all-conference quarterback David Larson (Southern).

As boys basketball coach, Murr had just one player earning a college scholarship from his first two teams. This year, following a second straight state 2A runner-up finish, players Kyle Grisby (all-state) and Seth Simmons will both play at Milligan College, and classmate David Wishon will attend prep school at Fork Union Military Academy before likely playing in college the following year.

The 2009-10 girls basketball team was conference runner-up this year and advanced to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs. Alexis Grant (Tallahassee Community College) and all-state Paige Whitaker (Lees-McRae) will continue playing next year.

Though other First Assembly teams have won state championships since the school opened in 1976 (the 2002 softball championship, for instance), the last few years may be the start of a golden era in Eagles athletics in terms of victories, playoff runs and college scholarships.

Three or four years from now, Murr projects, First Assembly's athletic program will likely take another significant step when it completes construction on a lighted football stadium and plays its first on-campus games.