The Tampa Charter Athletic League (TCAL) started with just five middle schools when it launched in 2013.
In a few short years, the league has ballooned to 22 schools and nearly 5,000 athletes throughout Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Of those schools, seven are in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area: Carrollwood Day School, Imagine School Land O’ Lakes, Learning Gate Community, Lutz Preparatory, North Tampa Christian, Sunlake Academy and Union Park.
Sports offerings include basketball, cross country, flag football, soccer, street hockey, track and field, and volleyball.
Other sports are on tap, with baseball and softball possibly next.
The upstart league is chaired and founded by Lutz Preparatory athletic director/physical education teacher Chad Mollick.
In designing the league, he envisioned something that would create more extracurricular activities for students and also foster some healthy competition.
The message spread quickly.
Simple “word of mouth” among other Tampa Bay area charter schools has grown the league where it is now, he said.
“It’s amazing to see just the massive amount of growth. I honestly never thought it would get to being this big,” Mollick said.
The league generally follows the rules and regulations of the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) “with a couple of small twists,” Mollick said.
For instance, the TCAL allows schools to field multiple teams for a sport, so that a large group of students that try out don’t have to get cut. Another wrinkle different from traditional public schools — fifth graders are grouped in as middle schoolers, so they can join teams and get in on competitive play earlier on.
“The biggest thing for me is just having more opportunities for the kids,” he said. “We pretty much added one or two (new) sports every other year.”
Before the league formed, Mollick said there really weren’t any organized leagues for charter middle schools. A couple schools would scrimmage some Tampa Bay area private schools, but that was the extent of it.
“Six years ago, no one did anything. There was nothing, really,” he said.
A recent cross country meet at Lutz Preparatory School underscored the league’s expansion and reach.
Roughly 300 boys and girls runners across a dozen schools (and at least another 100 spectators and volunteers) turned out for a regular season meet on a steamy Friday afternoon in September.
Mollick was on the front lines, working out race logistics with a walkie-talkie and golf cart and, setting up the course, corralling volunteers and getting everything else in order.
It’s the TCAL chairman pulling events together like that, which has impressed other charter middle school athletic directors.
“He does an incredible job,” said Bill Martin, athletic director/coach at Imagine School. “We all are really thankful that he’s able to do so much and really be able to keep things organized and everybody engaged. Every season’s always been successful. We make it work one way or another.”
Trinity School for Children athletic director/coach Kara White added this: “Chad puts in so many hours. I mean, we all do as athletic directors, but that man goes above and beyond, and if it wasn’t for him, this wouldn’t happen. We help, but he doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. I don’t think there’s anyone in the league who’d step up to do what he’s doing, and, teaching. It’s not easy. It’s a full time job.”
White, who’s been at Trinity for nearly two decades, also mentioned the league’s competition level “has come a long way” in the last few years.
“The schools that have been in it long enough now are understanding what they need to do to be competitive,” she said. “In different sports it varies, but I think it’s a pretty high level for middle school sports in Hillsborough County; I think we’re pretty far ahead.”
With the added competition, natural school rivalries have formed, also.
Lutz Prep and Imagine School is one of the more notable.
“We’re always battling for first or second place in two or three sports throughout the year,” Mollick said. “When you start seeing the competition in the championship games, it gets pretty intense.”
Meanwhile, Mollick said the “biggest issue” for the expanding league is finding enough gym and field space to put on events.
The league chairman said most charter schools don’t have their own gyms, so they have to go about renting county facilities which he said can cost anywhere from $50 to $150 per hour to put on sporting events.
“The hardest thing for us is facilities are hard to find,” he said. “These schools, every game they play, they’re paying to play.”
Aside from the league as a whole, Mollick has gone about increasing athletic participation within the Lutz Prep student body.
Mollick said roughly 90 percent of the school’s middle schoolers, or about 250 students, are now involved in some type of athletics.
Mollick also has developed an intramural sports program at Lutz Prep — including a running club for the school’s elementary student body, or grades one through four.
It’s something Lutz Prep parent Shelly Walsh appreciates, in getting students to take pride in the school and ingrained in sports programs.
“It’s a great way to get the kids to love it,” said Walsh, who has two sons at Lutz Prep. “They do a little bit of it in P.E., but not as much as coming after school, they get that feeling of, ‘This is fun, I like staying after.’”
That’s the way Lutz Prep sixth-grader Eva Hsi sees it. She plays flag football and soccer, and runs cross country for the school.
“I have fun,” Hsi said. “To get to meet the older kids and play with them, and not just stay with my grade, I enjoy it.”
So, too, does fellow Lutz Prep sixth-grader Declan Heuman, who runs cross country and track for the school, and plays baseball outside of it.
He said Lutz Prep “is really fun with all the sports we have here.”
He added cross country is his favorite because “I like how you get to run and meet all your friends doing it.”
Tampa Charter Athletic League schools
- Avant Garde Academy
- Carrollwood Day School
- Classical Preparatory
- Community Charter
- Hillsborough Academy
- Henderson Hammock Charter
- Imagine School Land O’ Lakes
- Learning Gate Community
- Legacy Prep
- Lutz Preparatory
- New Springs
- North Tampa Christian
- Pepin Academy – Hillsborough
- Pepin Academy – Pasco
- SLAM Tampa
- Sunlake Academy
- Tampa Day School
- Terrace Community
- Trinity School for Children
- Union Park
- Village of Excellence
Published October 09, 2019