By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

There is an extra air of excitement at Pace Academy this school year.

For the first time since opening 50 years ago, the school on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead has a varsity football team. And with the addition of off-site athletic facilities, the Pace Knights have a place for Friday night games.

“It gives us a complete, well-rounded athletic program,” said Kris Palmerton, the director of athletics at Pace. “It helps us retain our kids from lower school and middle school, and it definitely has built a much bigger sense of community from alumni to parents and students. Football obviously kicks off the school year.”

More than 80 percent of middle and upper school students participate in a sport, so it was important to bring the athletic department up to speed, Palmerton said.

“The whole reason for adding football was the demise of fall soccer in the state of Georgia,” he said. That left Pace with only cross country as a fall sport for boys. “We were losing students to other schools who obviously wanted to play football, and it really made all the sense in the world to add football.”

The new team

The first day in August was a crowning moment in Pace Academy’s history. About 60 ninth- to 12th-graders received their helmets and began training for the premiere season of Pace varsity football.

“I’m expecting a lot of kids’ intensity level to be very high in their first year of varsity,” said assistant coach Leonard Holmes, who handles running backs and linebackers. “I am expecting us to do pretty well this year. We are not as big, but we have got a lot of steam.”

“Everybody thinks that Pace is a tiny school and probably doesn’t expect a whole lot from us, but we feel that we are going to be really competitive,” said junior Sean Pope, an outside linebacker. “We all agree that this is pretty much the most athletic class that we have ever had at Pace.”

Junior Will Cox, a linebacker, agreed. “We will definitely do better than people are thinking,” he said. “I am pretty excited about starting out the program, about leaving a good impression for the kids that follow us.”

The Knights will play a regional schedule in the 5-A division against such schools as Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, Landmark Christian School, Mount Paran Christian School and Whitefield Academy.

“It is going to be a big transition from where we were with football,” head coach Matt Hall said.

The school added middle school football two years ago and a junior varsity last year. Pace posted a 2-2 JV record.

“This year, as in the past, we are going to take a lot of new kids to the game of football and try to teach them the basics, be competitive and hopefully have fun along the way,” Hall said. “I’m excited to continue the great characteristics and qualities of Pace Academy, just on the football field.”

With the addition of varsity football, Pace students will enjoy a traditional homecoming this fall. Last year, homecoming was held in December during the basketball schedule.

Pace also is adding varsity football cheerleaders.

“Coincidentally, this is Pace’s 50th anniversary,” Hall said. “It is a good year to jump in with our first varsity football team.”

The new facilities

After years of lacking a place to call home, some of Pace’s more than 20 varsity programs now have an off-site athletic facility. The Riverview Road complex is about six miles from the Pace campus on 23 acres in Cobb County.

In the past, Pace students played mostly on the road or at the Northside Youth Organization facilities at Chastain Park. An agreement with the West Paces/Northside Neighborhood Association in the early 1990s prohibited the school from holding football practice on campus. That agreement was amended last year to allow the practices.

“For the first two years, we practiced over at our Warren Road facility, which is now our softball complex right off of DeFoors Ferry,” Palmerton said.

When finished in 2009, the $23 million Riverview Road facility will include a 2,600-seat stadium, a full competition track, two multipurpose fields for football, soccer and lacrosse, a 27,000-square-foot field house, and parking for 450 cars.

Phase 1 is complete. It includes a lighted field with 800 permanent seats, as well as the entire infrastructure for the facility and the parking lot. Construction began in June 2007.

The Riverview site will include a baseball field named for Pace’s 41-year head baseball coach, Charlie Owens, Palmerton said. “So our varsity baseball team will play out there this year in a state-of-the-art, beautiful facility, which will all be lit also. That’s Phase 2.”

Phase 3 will cover the stadium and the track and field. The varsity football team will move into the stadium next year after playing at the lighted field this season.

“It is going to be a lot different for these kids to get out there and play Friday night games,” Hall said. “Hopefully, it will only increase the enthusiasm and excitement that people around here have.”