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New era of Tomball Christian Warriors Football dawning, with Criswell at helm

The sun has set on the Jack Frey era of Tomball Christian Warriors Football.

The Warriors, a “Christian-based homeschool support organization,” per the team’s website, are, among other things, a Texas Christian Athletic League-affiliated football squad based in Tomball that serves the Houston homeschool community, providing an opportunity to play competitive football where, but for the Warriors, one likely would not exist.

Now, eight seasons into its grand experiment, Tomball Christian is state champion for the second time. Longtime head coach Jack Frey, is preparing to step away from and figuratively ride off into the sunset. The departure, motivated in part by a desire to see his son, Austin – a 2013 Tomball Christian graduate, and now the Texas A&M deep snapper on punts and placekicks – play for the Aggies while he still can.

Taking Frey’s place at the helm of the two-time state champion varsity team is Chris Criswell, who coached the Tomball Christian Warriors junior high squad for the last two years, including an auspicious 12-0 2016 season.

Staring down the barrel of life sans head-coaching responsibilities for the first time in nearly a decade, Frey now has enough perspective to truly appreciate the strides the club has made since its humble, 2009 genesis. When founded, like many fledgling club football programs, Tomball Christian played exclusively six-man football, a variant of American football (i.e. 11-man football), that retains the full-contact facet of the gridiron game while reducing the number of players on-field for each team from 11 to six.

The Warriors, with Frey as head coach, have come a long way in the intervening years, from a squad full of players learning the game on the fly to a perennially nationally-ranked team, but Frey still vividly recalls those early days and the inauspicious consortium of homeschooled athletes who founded the Warriors.

“Eight years ago we started, and had our first meeting,” Frey said. “We had 12 kids. By the time we started playing, we had roughly 17, maybe 18, 19 kids. [For six-man] that was huge. And it really took off.

By ‘took off,’ Frey means not only that the club grew in membership, which it did, but also that by 2012, in just the fourth Warriors’ season in T-CAL’s six-man division, the Warriors won it all. The victory, dominant season that preceded it and total enrollment numbers prompted T-CAL to strongly suggest Tomball Christian convert to 11-man football, and the Warriors did just that. In the first year of 11-man football, Tomball Christian advanced to the T-CAL State Tournament, where the Warriors were a mainstay until breaking through again at the end of last season, this time in the 11-man division.

That the Warriors won two state titles is impressive enough, but even more remarkable is the consistent, steep upward trajectory of the team in each of the eight years of competition.

“Four years to win it in six-man, then four years to win it in 11-man,” Frey said. “And the highest number [of players] we’ve had in high school has been around 60, 57 I think. This past year we had 45.”

45 was enough. Though Tomball Christian trailed Pro-Vision 26-23 when the final seconds ticked off the game clock in the T-CAL state title game over the 2016 Thanksgiving weekend, Pro-Vision fielded an ineligible athlete (well beyond the age limit, who also was responsible for 20 of Pro-Vision’s 26 points in the contest) in the game. Following an investigation, T-CAL ruled in Tomball Christian’s favor, making the Warriors once again state-title winners.

Frey says that the victory, essentially awarded to the Warriors due to Pro-Vision’s infraction, rather than earned between the lines, is in some ways bittersweet, especially given the local notoriety that briefly followed T-CAL’s decision, but bittersweet or not, the Warriors are the state champions, and Frey turned the unfortunate situation into a teachable moment.

“We hated that our state championship game was a game that ended up making the news here in Houston, Channel 13, because of a player eligibility issue that came up on the other team,” Frey said. “It wasn’t the exact way you wanted to win the state championship. But it’s something, and we’ve really stressed with our kids, ‘hey, we all have rules we have to play around.'”

“We’ve been blessed.”

In Frey’s eight-year tenure, the Warriors climbed the mountain twice. The 2012 D1 Six-Man and 2016 D1 11-Man State Championships aren’t lonely outliers, either. In 2010, only the second year of competition, the Warriors were district champions, and in 2012, the team was ranked as the second-best homeschool six-man team in the country.

In 2013, T-CAL pushed Tomball Christian, with its robust enrollment and high-level six-man success, to convert the varsity high school squad to 11-man football, and in the first year of 11-man competition, the Warriors were state finalists, at points in the season ranked ninth and even first in the nation.

Four years, championship. Four years, championship. The Warriors were right on schedule with the most recent state-title victory, and Frey, looking back, says there is plenty of credit to go around, starting with the rest of the coaching staff.

In recent years, signaling an enormous paradigm shift, players have left public school programs to come play for the Warriors, which would have been unthinkable in 2009. The quality of Tomball Christian’s coaching, Frey believes, is one of the major draws.

“We’ve been blessed with the coaching staff that we’ve had,” Frey said. “We’ve had a lot of ex-NFL and ex-college players. I really feel like we’ve been able to give good, basic understanding of technique and principles.”

Jim Foote, quarterbacks coach, played the position for the Houston Oilers in the early-to-mid 70s. Daryl Price, one-time University of Colorado defensive end, was the 128th pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, taken by San Francisco in the fourth round. In his rookie year, alone, Price earned $164,000. Now he coaches the Warriors for free. Tomball Christian is, in every sense, driven by ideas like volunteerism and ‘love of the game.’ Offering coaches competitive salaries isn’t in the budget.

The Warriors have managed the no-paycheck drawback extraordinarily well, piecing together an extremely appealing collection of coaching acumen. That’s life at Tomball Christian. Without the resources of a school district, the Warriors are perpetually making lemonade from lemons. Frey says, despite the difficulties, he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The Tomball Christian struggle is real, but Frey prefers it to the kind of struggles he sees and hears about elsewhere in the world of high school athletics.

“We’ve got great kids, and I think we’re able to overcome a lot,” Frey said. “It’s not as though we don’t have issues, but we don’t have some of the problems that [public school coaches] have.”

Talk to anyone affiliated with Tomball Christian for long enough, and they will eventually allude to the idea that ‘things are a little different around here.’ And it’s true. The Warriors are a family, and like any family, the members are close-knit and expected to contribute to the greater good. Parents of players should not expect to drop their student-athletes at the gates to the practice facility and go run errands or relax in solitude.

Warriors parents are involved, by necessity, setting up and breaking down at events, helping to coordinate the practices and games plus a host of other responsibilities, and that level of ownership and investment the Warriors demand from the families is, in a sense, the tie that binds. Tomball Christian is not flawless, but that intrinsic, shared ownership, i.e. ‘we’re all in this together,’ would cover even a multitude of sins. Frey said that players and families leave Tomball Christian more than satisfied with the experience, and the crux of that experience is the overarching commitment to community and fellowship.

“We’re not perfect, but I think we’re a really good program,” Frey said. “The parents are excited. It’s going to be a good experience for them, for their kids. Every kid might like football to different degrees, but [for a lot of reasons] it’ll be a good experience.”

Changing of the guard

Frey, the first head coach in Tomball Christian history, has mixed feelings about his decision to step down. The decision is firm, a fait accompli, but his feelings are no less mixed for his resolve.

Frey now has two state titles to his name, but looking back on his time at Tomball Christian, what Frey remembers and appreciates, more than hoisting trophies, is the satisfaction that came with impacting numerous young men’s lives for the better.

“Coaching sports for me is being able to develop young men, develop character in them,” Frey said. “For us, being a Christian organization, we want to guide young men, and it’s also teaching them how to work their butts off. We want to be able to instill a hard work ethic.”

Frey’s mission to instill a godly, uncompromising work ethic paid off in a multitude of ways beyond just the six-man and 11-man state titles. There is no shortage of encouraging signs, when one looks closely. Last year, of the 34 slots on the T-CAL All-State First Team, 14 belonged to Warriors. One of them, Garrett Harlan (the son of Warriors Executive Director Mark Harlan) will be playing football for Blinn next year.

And Harlan is hardly the only Warrior to play at the next level. Players like Sam Stanley (Sam Houston State University), Crayton Fowler (Mary Hardin-Baylor), Frey’s son Austin (Texas A&M) and several others have used the Tomball Christian experience to propel themselves into collegiate athletics.

Like winning games or titles, placing Warriors in collegiate programs is not the primary goal, says Frey. Developing and nurturing Christ-centered leaders and community pillars is the Tomball Christian objective, and all the success, the accolades, the trophies and awards are just a happy byproduct of a godly, character-focused approach to competition.

Frey did not set out to win at all costs, but the Warriors won anyway. Frey has left the program infinitely better off than when he found it, a hopeful, but haphazard, 2009 fellowship of a dozen homeschooled greenhorns.

Likewise, Tomball Christian has left Frey better than it found him, too. As he sees it, Frey was afforded a unique and rare opportunity to play a pivotal role in student-athletes’ lives. As he contemplated the scope of his cumulative effect as Tomball Christian’s eight-year head coach, Frey found himself humbled.

“It’s humbling, as a coach, to have that kind of impact,” Frey said. “By now, we’ve had about 250 different kids that have been through the program. And for most of the kids, it’s been a pretty good experience.”

Staying the course

As tempted as he is to hang around the practices and games, clinging to the joy and satisfaction he derives from being around the Warriors, Frey says that, realistically, for the good of the club, he must step away entirely. Frey is quitting cold turkey, in deference to newly-minted head coach Criswell’s authority

“Just to make it fair for the new coach coming in, I’ve pulled away from it,” Frey said. “It’s not fair to anybody when you have the old coach that’s around. I just don’t believe it works. As much as you may want to say, ‘hey, it’d be nice,’ it just makes it hard for everybody.”

After two years at the helm of the junior high Warriors squad, Criswell will take on the same role for the varsity squad. The junior high team he leaves in the hands of Norm Morales is coming off a superlative 12-0 season, and – like Frey with the varsity team – he is leaving the junior high squad in a position of strength as he steps up to the high-school level.

In fact, the junior high squad is strong enough that, like the Warriors’ 2013 varsity squad, the Tomball Christian junior high team will make the leap to 11-man next year for the first time.

Tomball Christian is in a state of perpetual flux, growing and evolving at a tremendous rate, but Warriors faithful need not fear a sea change or drastic paradigm shift as Criswell replaces Frey. Criswell readily acknowledges that Frey laid a strong foundation. Rather than break it down to rebuild it, reinventing the wheel in an effort to put some kind of personal stamp on the Warriors’ culture, Criswell says he will honor Frey’s groundwork and simply continue to build upon it.

“We have an amazing tradition,” Criswell said. “I just want to build on that. I want people to see we’re a city on a hill, and what I mean by that is that we love wining football, hate losing, but what I want to be first is a witness in everything we do. Cheerleading squad, football squad, parents, before the game, after the game – I want everyone to go, ‘man, those guys are good, and they’ve got something different.'”

Criswell had that point – the ‘something different’ that Tomball Christian represents, what makes it truly special, according to both the incoming and outgoing head coach – driven home to him early in his tenure with the Warriors. Criswell knows, concretely and viscerally, exactly what Tomball Christian can mean to a Warrior.

“I won’t say the kid’s name, but we had a kid come and play for us,” Criswell said. “At best, he had limited experience with Christians. He came on the team because he was homeschooled and just wanted to play football.”

The Warriors’ Way, whether at practice, in games or anywhere two or more are gathered together, is explicitly, proudly Christ-centered, hardly a natural fit for a teenager who had never seen the inside of a church. If the Tomball Christian culture was going to fail to impact anyone, that was the guy.

Even that guy, it turns out, couldn’t help but appreciate the Warriors’ Way.

“He texted something out at the end of the year, to the group of guys, and he said, essentially, ‘you guys saved my life,'” Criswell said. “And I wasn’t even the head coach at the time, so I don’t take any credit for that, but when a young man comes in like that, you go, ‘oh, we’re doing something different.’ That brings tears to my eyes.”

Criswell isn’t kidding, isn’t being dramatic. The weight of that moment chokes him up even now, long after the fact. That, he says, was a real win, in a way a district championship or state title never could be.

Like Frey, Criswell is interested in trophies and titles only so long as they come the ‘right way,’ the result of hard work and strong character. Fundamentally, Tomball Christian is much more concerned with producing and nourishing the fruit of the spirit than stacking state title trophies.

Of course, that laser-like focus on first and foremost developing godly young men and women hasn’t kept the Warriors from stacking trophies. “Culture wins championships” is one of the most oft-repeated truisms in sports, and it’s true. That’s what at the heart of the Warriors’ Way.

The best kept secret around here

Tomball Christian’s priorities skew towards (to borrow a phrase from high school football coach Dennis Parker, who authored a book by the same name) coaching to change lives, but that clearly doesn’t preclude more state-title success.

Tomball Christian was still playing meaningful football on Thanksgiving last year, and Criswell has been telling the new, incoming players that when their families make holiday plans, they should factor in late-November games.

“We always start the season by saying, ‘plan to play through Thanksgiving,'” Criswell said. “That’s what it means when you go to state, and we plan to go to state.”

Given the Warriors’ track record, any other plans would be foolish. They will continue to compete, says the new head coach, and he fully expects them to continue winning.

More state titles for the program would be terrific, of course. No team in any sport has ever suffered from an overabundance of laurels.

But the Warriors have scaled that cliff twice before. More rings, trophies would be a lateral move. Criswell has bigger plans for the Warriors’ program. Step one is getting the word out that Tomball Christian exists. Despite the team’s enormous success and growth, Criswell says he still frequently encounters homeschoolers that are shocked to find that a place exists for them to play football.

“I think we’re in some ways the best-kept secret around here,” Criswell said. “And I don’t really want to be a secret, in that sense. I want people to know what we’re about. There’s some kid out there going, ‘man, I always wanted to play football, but I’m homeschooled, so I didn’t think I could.’ To be able to go, ‘no, you can be part of this community and this team’ is special.”

An influx of new athletes would be a boon for the Warriors, especially if the ranks swell enough to form a high school junior varsity squad. Both Frey and Criswell mentioned a JV team right away when they spoke to what ‘growth’ means for Tomball Christian going forward.

“I’d like to see us develop a JV team in the next few years,” Criswell said. “We think there’s a lot of ninth and tenth graders that probably struggle with the jump up to varsity. It’d be nice to have a JV squad.”

A JV squad would offer those underclassmen the chance to refine and hone their skills against comparably-aged, similarly-sized opponents. Rather than riding the bench because they can’t hang with the older, larger opponents, those underclassmen would be able to get starters’ reps at the JV level, which in turn makes for more experienced, polished varsity players when they are eventually promoted.

Aside from a JV team, there are longer-term, more lofty – though less immediate – aspirations.

The Warriors play their games at The Farm League in Spring. While the experience has been great for both parties, per Frey, the idea of having a legitimate home field, filled with Warriors-owned equipment, is appealing.

Any step forward for Tomball Christian hinges on a single factor: attracting more Northwest Houston homeschoolers, especially those who are ignorant of the Warriors’ existence. Frey and Criswell run into them frequently, and both are unabashed Tomball Christian evangelists. The frustrating thing for both men is that the reaction is almost universally positive when they explain who they are and what they do. The positive responses are always cause for hope, but the sheer number of potential players and families who are still wholly unaware the team exists is discouraging. There is a reason Criswell describes Tomball Christian as one of the city’s ‘best-kept secret’ with more than a hint of chagrin.

The two men approach the project of raising Tomball Christian’s profile with the same hard work and intensity they preach to the Warriors. Frey may be stepping away from team-related duties, to facilitate a smooth, easy transition of power, but he will never stop promoting the team. After eight years at the center of the Warriors’ operation, he knows just how valuable that opportunity can be for a homeschooler.

“Some families that are homeschooling don’t even know that football is still an option,” Frey said. “We still feel there’s a lot of growth [possible], and we want to get that information out there.”

A brief glance at the statistics confirms Frey’s assessment of the program’s potential for growth. Even without public school players departing for Tomball Christian, a trend that will likely continue if the Warriors can continue to place players in the collegiate ranks and contend for state titles, the Warriors would likely continue to grow, simply because the state’s homeschooled population is exploding.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between 1999 and 2012, the number of homeschooled students between the ages five and 17 ballooned from 850,000 to 1.77 million, a stunning 108.6 percent increase. As of 2015, 3.4 percent of all students in the country were homeschooled, trending towards five percent.

The Warriors’ potential talent pool is deepening by the day. Like Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams,” Frey and Criswell have spent the last eight years building. Now, they wonder how many might possibly come.

“What homeschooling was ten years ago is not what homeschooling is today,” Frey said. “Looking at the opportunities that they have, it’s very different. We want to get the word out. We’ve got a great program here in Tomball.”

The Tomball Christian Warriors varsity football squad will attempt to repeat as state champions next season, opening the season with two scrimmages at The Farm League August 18 and 25 before opening the season traveling to face The Village in the season opener.

Spring football commences for the Warriors April 24, running through May 19. Additionally, The Warriors are holding open tryouts for the junior high squad on March 20 and 27, for any incoming sixth, seventh and eighth grade homeschool students.

Visit the Tomball Christian Warriors website ( http://www.tomballchristianwarriors.com ) to learn more.

Criswell describes the Warriors as seeker friendly, encouraging anyone curious about the program to visit the website or reach out to a parent or coach affiliated with the team. The junior high tryouts offer an especially viable route to getting involved. In addition to junior high and high school football, the Warriors offer competitive cheer and spring baseball to homeschool athletes, as well as a Homecoming dance, corresponding with the Warriors Homecoming Game, which draws homeschool students from all across Houston.

The Warriors have, in a sense, become all things to all men that some might be saved. Criswell says the organization exists to serve the homeschool community – all the student-athletes need do is knock, and the door will be opened unto them.

“We want folks to come and try us out,” Criswell said, “Come see what we’re all about.”