TAMPA — Cristo Rey Tampa High School — a third-year institution that offers a Catholic college preparatory education to underserved students — wants the Tampa Bay area to know it’s around.
Principal Matt Torano said his school might have discovered the perfect advertising and marketing vehicle.
Its fledgling athletic program.
The Cristo Rey Panthers are off and running — and winning. The school’s opening sport (volleyball) won its first match (beating Pepin Academy) and packed the gym for its initial home contest (losing against St. Petersburg Catholic).
"We’re just getting started, but the excitement has been pretty electrifying and unifying,’’ Torano said. "More than almost anything else, it’s giving us an identity.
"People were saying, ‘Wow, we’re a real high school now.’ We have been in operation for a few years, but I think the traditional idea of a school having sports really helps to solidify what we have here. And in turn, when people notice our athletic teams, they will notice everything else we offer at the school as well.’’
Cristo Rey, located on the grounds of Mary Help of Christians Center in eastern Tampa, offers admission based on a family’s ability to pay (the maximum annual tuition is $500) and requires its students to work in the corporate world five times a month, which helps to defray expenses.
It’s one of 35 Cristo Rey schools (in 21 states), which are sponsored by the Salesians of Don Bosco. The unique work-study format has been attractive. The current enrollment of 164, with freshmen, sophomores and juniors leading into the school’s first graduating class in 2020, reflects steady growth. But Torano said the school lost a few students who wanted to play high school sports.
"This is a promise delivered,’’ Torano said. "We told them to be patient and to indicate their interest. We would get things going. And now things are going.’’
Cristo Rey will offer five varsity programs during this school year — volleyball, boys basketball, girls basketball, boys soccer and girls soccer — while having club teams in cross country, golf and tennis. It is cobbling together schedules in each sport.
Early in 2019, Cristo Rey plans to formally apply for membership in the Florida High School Athletic Association. Once approved, it can be placed in a district, where scheduling and competitions will be much more seamless.
"This is early, but our teams are showing that we are family, we are one,’’ said Cristo Rey athletic director John Davidson, a former football player at Tampa Catholic who has transitioned to education from the corporate world. "When we had our first home volleyball match, the teachers and students poured into the gym.
"I’m not sure how much they even knew about volleyball, but they were going absolutely crazy. It definitely united our school on a completely different level.’’
Of course, beginning a high-school athletic program from scratch brings unique challenges.
Coaches must be hired. Linda Cormier is the volleyball coach and Pete Mitchell is the basketball coach (the soccer coach hasn’t yet been finalized).
Opponents must be scheduled. Uniforms must be designed and ordered. Equipment and supplies must be stocked.
"I noticed at our first (road) volleyball match that the line judges had red flags,’’ Davidson said. "I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! We don’t have those?’ So we quickly ordered them. They came in the day of our first (home) match. I was getting worried. We did have volleyballs and a net, though. So I was grateful for that.’’
Torano and Davidson won’t put a ceiling on Cristo Rey’s athletic future, although there are practical considerations. Until the enrollment reaches higher levels, it’s unlikely that sports such as football and baseball will be added.
Davidson said he’s trying to think outside the box. One student asked about the archery pit located on the Mary Help of Christians grounds. The student quickly got nine commitments from interested students and was seeking an adult sponsor. There have been inquiries into swimming (a pool already exists) and Davidson has even wondered if Cristo Rey could form a team in the obscure high-school sport of fishing (the campus is next to Bellows Lake).
"As we move forward with this, the eighth-grade students around town will realize there’s a private-school athletic option besides Tampa Catholic, Jesuit, Berkeley Prep, Tampa Prep, the Academy (of Holy Names) and others,’’ Davidson said. "We’re committed to building and doing this the right way. We don’t have everything we need yet, but it’s a process.’’
Does Cristo Rey own a trophy case?
"Not yet,’’ he said. "But we’ll look into it.’’
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]