The Gray Collegiate Academy girls basketball team celebrates its win over the Silver Bluff Bulldogs. (Photos by Andrew Phillips/Carolina News and Reporter)

The sometimes controversial Gray Collegiate Academy enters its new era in Class 4A, a jump from Class 2A, with a new athletics director and head football coach.

The West Columbia school has been in the 2A competitive division since the charter school’s opening in 2014. But it moved up two levels following the South Carolina High School League’s biennial realignment this year.

Many public school parents, coaches and supporters have voiced frustrations in the past about Gray Collegiate’s ability to recruit players as a charter school that can bring in students from across the state.

The controversy most recently boiled over after the Class 2A semifinals versus W. J. Keenan, when Keenan basketball’s Zach Norris dramatically blew off Gray’s coach Dion Bethea in the post-game handshake line.

“They’re a specialized sports school, no concealing that,” Morgan Gauthreaux Hanes said in a response on Facebook to a reporter’s query about Gray’s reclassification. “They’re taking away from an athlete pool that would have normally fed into regular high schools zoned for certain areas. Bringing in stronger sports centered athletes does give them an advantage over regular high schools.”

Gray announced Feb. 14 it had hired DeAngelo Bryant as its football coach and boys’ soccer coach Kevin Heise as the new athletics director. It’s the first time in the school’s history it has split the duties of football coach and AD.

“I think there was some speculation that maybe there was a fear of moving to 4A, and that had nothing to do with it whatsoever,” Heise said. “It was really just a situation where we’re moving forward, and the culture is still the same.”

DeAngelo Bryant comes to Gray Collegiate after a long tenure at his Aiken County high school alma mater, Silver Bluff. In six seasons as head coach, he compiled a record of 38-26.

“I had two people that I have a lot of esteem for reach out to me and say, ‘Kevin, I don’t know D’Angelo will leave Silver Bluff because that’s his home,’” Heise said. “‘But, if y’all could manage to get him out of there, y’all will not hit a home run, you will hit a grand slam.'”

Bryant was named the Class 2A Upper State Coach of the Year last season, but he said that’s not what’s important to him.

“My life-long goal is to make sure that we turn these young men into men,” Bryant said. “The way we attack our academics, the way we attack life and the way we attack football – that’s going to be a huge part in our success.”

Last fall, Gray’s 2A regional opponents forfeited their games against the charter school in protest of Gray’s competitive advantage.

“A lot of local school districts won’t play Gray,” Heise said. “We’ve been forced to do other things, get on a bus a lot of times and travel somewhere else to play other competition. But that has not deterred us from what we want to do. We still sought out the best competition we can.”

In November 2023, the league agreed to do something it never had to address the “Gray” question.

The league’s executive committee decided to apply a “multiplier-times-three” for every out-of-attendance zone student at a school when arriving at an attendance count.

The committee knew the rule would fall harder on charter schools – in particular, four statewide that were controversial. And because a school’s division is based on the size of its student body and Gray’s newly calculated student body population is more than 1,200, Gray moved up two divisions. Without the multiplier, Gray had just over 600 students in grades 9 through 12. That means its calculated enrollment essentially doubled.

For charter schools such as Gray, the league assigns zoning areas based on a nearby public high school. Gray shares an attendance zone with Brookland-Cayce High School.

“Moving up will provide them more competition,”Henry Marty Martin said in a Facebook comment. “If it’s too high, and they get beat 44-7 a bunch of times, then they will be moved back down and a lesson learned by all. If they keep winning in competitive games, then so be it.”

In January 2024, Gray appealed its new 4A classification, asking to be moved to 3A instead. But it was denied by the committee, 12-4.

Bryant said the move to 4A creates some depth issues.

“We won’t get off the bus with 60-something young men, so we’ll have to get creative,” Bryant said. “Just from a depth standpoint, we will have to come up with the best game plan schematics and everything because the talent level will be there across the board for some of these schools.”

Despite the constant controversy, Bryant hopes he can shine a new light on Gray.

“I’m hoping that the relationships that I’ve created with a lot of coaches and programs and principals around just our state really kind of shines a different light on Gray Collegiate at the end of the day,” Bryant said. “Now, hopefully that this multiplier rule has been set, it should kind of even the playing field in a lot of other people’s eyes.”

A fan cheers on the Gray Collegiate War Eagles on the road to this season’s Class 2A girls championship.

Gray Collegiate’s head coach Brandon Wallace directs his girls’ basketball players against the Silver Bluff Bulldogs.