Talley Morton relies on other parents to keep her mother apprised of her high school softball activities.
Her mother lives in the Washington, D.C., area, and the 17-year-old attends Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, about 300 miles away. Morton, a senior, has been playing on the school’s softball team since her freshman season, the academic year she decided to leave home for the private North Carolina boarding school.
“It was either that or my local high school, which had a low graduation rate,” said Morton, who at 13 moved to Raleigh from New Jersey, where her family previously lived. “I had been around the same people since kindergarten, so I wanted to change to a boarding school.”
There, she found meaning on the field.
Nontraditional athletics is on the rise, partly because more families are turning to home schools and charter schools. The N.C. High School Athletic Association is debating whether playoff brackets should be split because of the recent success nonpublic schools have had, and several home-school teams have made noise in the form of winning championships.
Morton’s setting, an all-girls, academically challenging environment, provides 18 junior varsity and varsity teams that give students an outlet. Though Morton, a first-team, all-conference selection, has played sports from a young age, some of her teammates were in softball for the first time.
It’s easy to pick Morton out as a leader for the Saints based on the captain’s tall frame and how younger players respond to her. Away from her family the past four years, Morton, the student government association’s vice president with a passion for social activism, has used softball as an excuse to get out and play.
She has been the only pitcher four seasons, but athletics is not a means to the future for the Northwestern University-bound Morton, who found a purposeful outlet in softball.
“Sports is just, especially softball, really what I look forward to every year,” Morton said. “It’s just so much fun.”
This theme is concentrated for other nontraditional high school sports environments where athletics is not a primary focus; winning is just a cherry on top.
Saint Mary’s puts a strong emphasis on academics, boasting a 100 percent acceptance rate to many top colleges and universities. Boarding students represent 11 states and seven countries. But the school still fields teams to compete in the Triangle Independent Schools Athletic Conference.
You have to want to be here.
Saint Mary’s senior Talley Morton
While Morton admitted that waking up on time poses a challenge, she’s also a high school student whose family couldn’t be there when she completed college applications or was voted team MVP.
Morton said to focus in a nontraditional educational environment such as Saint Mary’s, “you have to want to be there.”
In a clash exposed during the latest NCHSAA board meeting, board member David Gentry, the football coach at Murphy High in Cherokee County, presented the idea to break up certain 1A playoff brackets between public schools and nontraditional schools (charters, parochials and magnets) since the latter category has been winning more 1A titles in some sports.
Home schooling in North Carolina has grown tremendously in the past 10 years.
During the 2004-05 school year, Wake County had the most of the state’s 31,530 home schools with 2,896. In 2014-15, the number of home schools in the state climbed to 67,804 and Wake County had 6,539.
There were 31,530 home schools in the state during the 2004-05 school year, with 58,780 students enrolled. In Wake County that year, there were 2,896 home schools with 5,801 students. Wake County usually has the most home schools and students.
The number of home schools in the state climbed to 67,804 by 2014-15. Wake County had 6,539 with 10,407 students enrolled.
Aaron Miller, New Life Storm girls’ basketball coach and the camp’s program director, said as home schools increase, so does the interest of athletics. His program was the first in New Life Camp’s athletic department in 2006.
Last season, the boys’ and girls’ teams swept the North Carolina Home Educators Athletic Conference championships.
“In the beginning, it tended to be, when you call to schedule games, no one wanted to play you because they didn’t want a blowout,” Miller said. “We started getting nods from Ravenscroft and some of the other larger private schools and charter schools. It’s been exciting to see recognition that this is a program.”
The New Life Storm teams compete under the NCHEAC, which provides the leagues and tournaments for home-schooled students to experience sports as if they were in a traditional school.
Many student-athletes in these settings, similar to Morton at Saint Mary’s, have had a natural inclination to play sports.
Ally Stone played on the New Life girls’ basketball championship team this season, and she said she saw her teammates just as much as if she were in a traditional school; she has friends who attend public schools.
“I think this is a better setting, especially for me. I’m really socially awkward,” said Stone, who takes classes Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, often with her teammates. “In this setting, it is a lot easier because I’m more comfortable and the people around me are really loving and accepting of who I am. Being in school, it might be harder.”
Stone and other Storm basketball players practice as would with any other team. They play in rivalry games, an audible student section showing support. But they get something they said would be harder to obtain at a public school.
“When I was coaching at Cary High School, I couldn’t overtly share the Gospel,” said Greg Burton, the camp’s executive director and boys’ basketball coach. “I couldn’t sit here in our main office and talk about Jesus. Here, we have all the openness to just proclaim what we believe.”
That is a major part of sports at New Life. While Burton said not all of its students are evangelical, the state’s home schools tend to be more religious than independent. In 2014-15, 61.2 percent of them were religious.
For Miller, he’s glad that teaching about God outweighs winning basketball games.
“We think sports is a microcosm of life,” Miller said. “We get to be able to walk with kids who are trying to figure out life, how to do things when things don’t go my way, how to live when bad things happen. We teach it on the drawing board of that court. We do the best and the most with what God gave us.”
Ravenscroft standout point guard Michael Okauru recently announced his transfer to New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy, along with the heart of the Garner boys’ team, Thomas Allen.
Some nontraditional schools might appear to have the advantage when they can entice good athletes to leave their schools simply to play in their programs.
But this isn’t always the case.
Burton said many of his players wouldn’t make teams at other schools. Several of Morton’s teammates at Saint Mary’s were new to varsity sports.
“Our kids may or may not be playing at Millbrook,” Burton said. “This is an avenue for them.”
In Morton’s penultimate softball game this season, she encouraged her teammates through every passed ball, every earned run and even following an inside-the-park homer where the runner beat a throw home. Morton patted her catcher on the back after the score.
Morton can’t hide her love for the game, but instead of spotlighting her athletic abilities, she has been able to highlight the value of team building and learning life skills, one reason why athletes in these types of settings join high school sports.
“It’s the culture of our school,” Morton said after the Saints left the field with heads high following a 22-3 loss to North Raleigh Christian. “Be OK with what you do. As long as you feel like you’ve played your hardest, just feel great.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan