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Updated: New Life Academy joins new football co-op

The New Life Academy football team celebrates with running back Sam Bissen after scoring a touchdown during last year's section playoffs. (Bulletin file photo)

The New Life Academy football program decided it needed to look into other options after having only 27 high school players on its roster last season.

Now the program will have a new look and new name.

New Life Academy announced last week a new cooperative team with additional schools to go along with a name change to Academy Force Football. Mounds Park Academy and Twin Cities Academy will join the cooperative football program that previously consisted of New Life Academy, St. Croix Preparatory Academy, Bethany Academy and Liberty Classical Academy.

Kevin Kleiner, athletic director at New Life Academy, said competing at the Class 4A level for the section playoffs was a challenge with players competing on both offense and defense. Despite the challenge of small participation numbers, the Eagles last fall advanced to the Class 4A, Section 3 championship game for the first time in program history.

“If we’re going to play at a 4A level, we’ve got to have numbers at least of a respectable 4A school,” Kleiner said. “So that’s kind of where it started from.”

St. Croix Prep has been part of a cooperative team with New Life Academy for the past seven years. St. Croix Prep athletic director Rich Dippel said the partnership started when the school was only 6 years old and did not know the level at which athletics would be offered.

However, participation numbers had inched closer to 50 percent between his school and New Life Academy recently, along with a handful of kids from Bethany Academy and Liberty Classical Academy. St. Croix Prep is looking forward to having a piece of the team’s new identity.

Administrators from both St. Croix Prep and New Life Academy said the team was modeled after the SMB Wolfpack football team, a cooperative with players from St. Paul Academy, Minnehaha Academy and Blake.

“We can fly under a common banner but still recognize the individual schools,” Dippel said. "So that's pretty much the reason why we went forward with this. We’re kind of rebranding the team.”

Mounds Park Academy's Dan Haase said the school was not looking for a separation from the SMB program until St. Croix Prep and New Life Academy administrators contacted them. While SMB held practices at Minnehaha Academy, Academy Force Football practices are expected to be more convenient for Mounds Park Academy students.

"We have had a number of players decline to play for SMB due to the amount of travel time to practices and games," Haase said in an email. "It’s not convenient. We are grateful for the opportunity to play with SMB, however, forming Academy Force Football on the east side of the metro provides our student/athletes a more manageable situation with greater opportunity for playing time."

Four Mounds Park Academy students played football with SMB last year, and this fall, Haase said they hope to provide 10 students for football.

The cooperative agreement will also include a three-way split for program funding between New Life Academy, St. Croix Prep and Mounds Park Academy. Previously, New Life Academy shouldered most of the cost of the football team. Included with the name will be a new logo, team colors and uniforms.

This fall, Gene Teigland will enter his fourth season as head coach of the New Life Academy and now Academy Force Football program. Last fall, the 27 high school players on the roster were the fewest he has seen since becoming the head coach. Not only were the numbers low for the varsity team, but at the junior varsity level as well.

The coaching staff figured a shift to a bigger cooperative team was inevitable.

"Even in my second year we were thinking about that just because we saw the grades," Teigland said. "There were a couple of grades there that didn't have a lot of numbers, even from the beginning. We could kind of see the writing on the wall."

Teigland said the players would not see many changes when they report for practice this fall.

"I think it will be very similar for the kids," Teigland said. "We have most of our coaching staff coming back. The leadership is the same. The direction we have been going with our team since I have gotten here will continue."

Teigland expects numbers to rebound for the team this fall. Not only will Mounds Park add more students, but the team's run to the section finals last fall has generated excitement.

"Even internally, I think the success we've had has kind of got more people's attention," Teigland said. "So even between our schools we had last year, I've just been hearing more kids wanting to go out."

The program is planning to make a new turf field at St. Croix Prep the new spot for home football games starting in 2018. Previously, New Life Academy played its home games at the varsity fields available on Friday nights at the three District 833 high schools. Academy Force Football will play most of its games at South Washington County Schools again this fall while the new field is constructed at St. Croix Prep.

The lower numbers in the New Life Academy football program have followed a trend of reduced high school football participation, believed to be due in part to concerns about head injuries in the sport.

However, concerns over player safety in the NFL have not always matched those at the high school level. Kleiner said the football program has had fewer concussions over the past two years than other team sports like soccer and basketball at New Life Academy.

“I think football gets beat up a lot in the media, and parents see that,” Kleiner said. “We’ve had literally over 10 families say they’re not letting their kid play football because of a fear of concussions and head injuries. So that has definitely hurt participation numbers.”