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Minnesota program succeeds with hybrid team from three schools

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At 3-1, New Life Academy (Minn.) is having one of the best starts to a football season in program history. Bizarrely, the school owes much of the credit for that start to students who have never attended a class at NLA.

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According to a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, New Life Academy finds itself in the unique position of benefitting from athletes at three other schools in addition to NLA. The school first worked out a football co-op agreement with St. Croix Preparatory Academy, then inherited a number of football players from Bethany Academy, which had a co-op with Lions Gate Christian Academy. When Lions Gate closed in August, players from both Bethany (where most of the former Lions Gate students enrolled) were left without a team, which is where NLA stepped in.

In the end, 14 players from Bethany Academy joined up with New Life Academy's already hybrid roster, pushing the program's enrollment to an all-time high of 58. Those numbers gave the program flexibility to develop a junior varsity team and rely on an actual depth chart worth of players rather than scramble to find players to put on the field.

"The influx of kids has been overwhelming," New Life Academy coach Paul Mork told the Pioneer Press. "I feel really happy, in particular, for the senior guys that their senior year of football wasn't extinguished."

The existing players at NLA were more than happy to welcome in their new teammates as well.

"As captains, we encouraged everyone, especially the young ones, to be welcoming," Zach Jusczak, one of NLA's four captains, told the Pioneer Press. "I think the positive chemistry kicked in right away. Having some extra guys around here created the awareness that there was going to be some competitions at positions. That has made us better."

In addition to Jusczak, fellow seniors Sam Berg, Pat Anderson and Caleb Rollins serve as captains for NLA. Neither Anderson or Rollins go to NLA, and their incorporation into the program's leadership core has been a boon for a more seamless transition of all the Bethany players.

And whether members of the 2010 Eagles are from NLA or Bethany, all are finally playing at the level they belong, a bonus which Mork said may be the biggest benefit of the two schools' football integration. Here's how the coach described that process to the Pioneer Press:

"Unquestionably, guys playing where they should be has been a big positive in all of this," Mork said. "It really is a tribute to both their guys and our guys that this has worked so well and that there is so much positive energy.

"Guys from both sides were very accepting of coaches' decisions. Some received glory positions and some have had to play unappreciated, unglorified spots. I have never seen them roll their eyes or hear them complain."

Last Friday, NLA faced the program's first hiccup of the season, a tight 28-21 loss to Providence Academy. According to the Woodbury Bulletin of Woodbury, Minn., NLA jumped out a 7-0 lead in the game before Providence used some key second half plays to pull away.

Still, even that loss is better than what players like Anderson and Rollins, who serves as the team's quarterback, feared this summer.

"I figured multiple times that I was done playing football,'' Anderson said. "The New Life guys welcomed us. That was so cool.''

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