East Xtra: Imani Christian prepares for first 'official' season

HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL


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More than 30 years after graduating high school, Harvey Smith feels like a kid again.

Like his 21/2 dozen players, Smith is eagerly awaiting Aug. 31. That evening, Imani Christian Academy's football program plays its first game as a WPIAL member, playing Bishop Canevin at Dormont Stadium. Smith is in his third year as the athletic director and head coach of the Saints, building the football program from scratch.

"The excitement is just unbelievable," Smith said earlier this week. "I almost feel like one of the kids back when I was playing myself.

"We've been through a lot, played some games last year in an exhibition scenario to get ourselves prepared for what we're going through now. Anybody who grows up in this area wants to measure themselves against the WPIAL. This is their first experience at it."

Imani Christian, a private school located in the city's East Hills section near the Penn Hills and Wilkinsburg borders, will play in the Class A Black Hills Conference. The Saints will open the season against Bishop Canevin (which won the Eastern Conference title last season) and close at four-time defending WPIAL champion Clairton Oct. 26.

Both of those teams went undefeated in the regular season last year. That's a far cry from the likes of Iroquois and Cambridge Springs, teams from the Erie area that Imani Christian played last season to fill out its independent schedule.

"We're real excited and real appreciative of the schedule we had last year, but we had to play all exhibition [games]," senior wide receiver Eric Scott said. "This year we actually have a chance to prove ourselves and show all the hard work put in has paid off."

The Saints will play their three home games at Chadwick Field in Homewood, fiormerly a softball field that has been converted into a football facility.

In addition to football, boys and girls basketball -- teams which have already been playing WPIAL schedules -- and track and bowling are sports offered at the small school housed in a building that is the former East Hills Elementary.

On its website, the school describes itself by saying: "The neighborhoods where our children live are typically filled with violence, addiction and various forms of verbal and physical abuse. When students from such backgrounds come to Imani, they are safe in an environment where they can learn, find love, and experience hope."

Smith bought into that mission. Before coming to Imani, Smith was an assistant under his brother, Terry, at Gateway. A Gateway and West Virginia University alumnus who earned a graduate degree from Penn State, Harvey Smith has a coaching resume that includes experience at Division I colleges such as Penn State, Youngstown State and Duquesne. He has been on staffs under Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno.

"What attracted me to Imani had nothing at to do with athletics," said Smith, who additionally has high school coaching experience at Kiski Area and Penn Hills. "I had a son who was struggling in school academically and behaviorally, and quite frankly, Imani was the last chance that he had academically, the way I saw it.

"Long story short, I watched the way he was able to become successful at Imani ... and I became a believer in that system. It made me want to relocate and do the same thing for other young men."

The roster lacks extensive football experience -- Smith estimates 30 to 40 percent of his players never played organized football before joining the team -- but it has no shortage of top-end talent. Smith said his collection of skill-position talent is on a par with anyone in WPIAL Class A.

Included in that group is Scott, a Churchill resident, and quarterback Khari Hicks.

Scott, whom Smith said ranks No. 1 academically in his graduating class, is being recruited by Penn and Princeton of the Ivy League and the Big East's Rutgers as well as respected colleges with strong academic reputations such as Johns Hopkins and Lafayette.

Hicks has drawn interest from similar colleges. His skills, along with that of receivers/defensive backs Brendan Edwards and Michael Wright, will allow Imani Christian to utilize a passing attack. Smith said Edwards and Wright are being recruited by Youngstown State and some Mid-American Conference programs.

"We have a lot of chemistry now and a lot more to play for this year," Scott said. "We have a big spotlight on us being new, and we're ready to show everyone we're a good football team."

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