Over the last two seasons, Mississippi’s tiny Greenville Christian School has emerged as a football force despite its small budget and limited facilities. Ranked number one in the state, the players and coaches point to the team’s relationships and hunger for wins as the keys to success. Another factor: like many Christian schools around the country, Greenville kept its programs rolling during the pandemic.
Founded in 1969, the Christian school has 253 students enrolled in preschool through 12th grade. Before the last two winning seasons, just fielding enough players for a team was a challenge for the small school.
Coach Jon Reed McLendon had only 10 players show up to the first summer practice in July 2020. But then, as many schools in the Mississippi Delta region cancelled their football seasons due to COVID concerns, players sought opportunities at new schools. Greenville Christian had athletes enrolling from towns all over the area. Many of the players had competed against each other growing up. Now they were united on one team. With a current roster of 36, the Greenville Saints are small but mighty.
Quarterback DeAndre (DJ) Smith joined the team at Greenville last year after his former school cancelled its season. Though there were other private football powerhouses to consider, he says he was drawn to the atmosphere of Greenville Christian: “From day one I knew it was going to be a perfect fit for me. From when I first came in, it feels like we knew each other for all our lives.”
The school has a small budget, and its facilities hardly rival the larger public and private schools they play. The team’s weight room is housed in converted classroom space. The school aims “to provide an environment that focuses on spiritual development, academic excellence, and athletic integrity in order to empower students to impact their society for Christ.”
“Relationships (are) what brought these new players here,” Coach McLendon told a local news organization. “It surely wasn’t the facilities.”
“A lot of [other] teams have super nice facilities and they’re really fortunate to have that stuff,” said McLendon. “For the meantime, we can use that as a little chip on our shoulder. Say, ‘hey, you know, we don’t have very much but what we do have is a pretty good football program. We’re going to go in here and compete and we’re going to use that as some motivation.”
In 2020 the Greenville Christian Saints finished with an 11-1 record, and won the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) 3A state championship for the first time since 1982. This season, the team has defeated the three largest private schools in the area, as well as the class 6A defending state champion. They are currently ranked number one in the state at 9-1.
The coaching staff – all three of them – are Greenville Christian graduates themselves.
“This school seems to reel you in. The fact that people invested in your life and you want to come back and invest in other people’s lives,” said Assistant Coach Jordan McLendon.
Assistant Coach Justin Leavy, who passed up an opportunity to continue his football career in the Canadian Football League in order to coach at Greenville, sums up the overall motto of the team. “There’s so many other ways to be successful other than football. Football is just an avenue to reach other people, to me. And that’s what I’m using it for.”