By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL --When the Patriot Conference formed three years ago to band together a regional group of in-state football-playing private schools, the new league looked like a good bet to last.
The five-member conference lost a founding member just before last season when Fishburne Military School suddenly bowed out, and Quantico followed suit following last season.
And now there's just three schools in the Patriot -- Randolph-Macon Academy, Massanutten Military Academy and Fredericksburg Christian Academy. If the reduced league can't recruit a new member or two by next season, this could well be the last year for the conference.
"We're looking to expand it back for next year," R-MA coach Frank Sullivan said. "We're just having a hard time finding someone that fits our league because there's such a disparity in the size of the schools."
Currently, the three Patriot Conference member schools all play in different classifications in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association, making it difficult to expand all that much.
"I think we'd have to go four because we're all in different divisions in the state and we have to have a certain amount of games within our division, so I don't think we could get too much bigger than five," Sullivan said. "Four would be good, five would be OK, but we've got to leave some room for other games."
R-MA will see one potential match for the Patriot Conference first-hand on Saturday, when the Yellow Jackets host Charlottesville's Covenant School in a noon contest.
"We've talked to them in the past, but they've just gone through an athletic director change so we're not sure," Sullivan said. "They would probably be a nice fit."
REMEMBER THAT NAME: It didn't take long for Ayebalayefaa Eke-Spiff to decide he simply had to do something about his name.
The Nigerian-born rising senior and world traveler found out early on that most people simply couldn't handle his first name, so he decided to shorten it a few years ago. Now, he goes by Faa Faa.
"Yeah, it's a pretty long one," Eke-Spiff said. "My parents, of course, gave us the traditional African names. I just felt like it was too long. At some point, I was like, 'I've got to break this down.' But I wanted to make it something catchy, something where if you heard it then it stuck in your head and something where you'd always remember that kid."
Eke-Spiff started in boarding school as an 8-year-old in Nigeria and later attended day school when his family moved to Dubai, then started attending R-MA when they moved again to the United States.
By then, he was Faa Faa to his friends. His younger brother and teammate at R-MA, sophomore AyebeSopreye Eke-Spiff, also opted to cut down that unwieldy first name. He goes by So So. Not to be outdone, little sister Naomi prefers to be called Mi Mi.
Faa Faa Eke-Spiff will likely be a name his opponents remember this season, and not just because it's catchy. He'll be a dangerous playmaker for the Yellow Jackets at wingback and fullback on offense, and will play both outside and inside linebacker on the defensive side.
Eke-Spiff, who took up playing football as a sophomore after previously competing in first soccer and then rugby, is looking forward to the heavier workload on both sides of the ball.
"I feel like my brain has expanded, football-wise, and I've expanded my positions," Eke-Spiff said. "I love it and I wouldn't give it up."
In R-MA's run-heavy offense, Eke-Spiff should have plenty of chances to shine.
"I'm grateful to be able to work in the backfield with some of the kids I've known for a really long time and have been here with me since freshman year, Timmy Idowu and Austin Lee," Eke-Spiff said. "We have a great quarterback, Peter Blair, and a great line. I love all of them. They're my brothers. They protect me and I do what I can to make sure all their hard work and blocking doesn't go unseen."
Sullivan plans to use Eke-Spiff in a similar fashion as former R-MA standouts Andre Lake and Kevin Slaton, who both now play football at Shenandoah University.
"We'll move him around where it's advantageous to us," Sullivan said. "It depends on what the defense is giving us."
CRAM SESSION: Sullivan said the Yellow Jackets' lone scrimmage against the Potomac School went well, but there's been little time to prepare specifically for what Covenant will be bringing on Saturday. The Eagles' triple-option offense is something the Yellow Jackets might only see once this season, and Sullivan and his staff only found out what they'd be facing this past Saturday.
"They run the flexbone, triple-option offense with mid-line and veer and some counters," Sullivan said. "We have to play our option responsibilities correctly on defense and they've been working on that pretty diligently. If we give the fullback a crack, he's got the ability to take it all the way to the end zone.
"It's just hard to replicate in practice."
FAR AND WIDE: Sullivan can always count on an eclectic roster at R-MA, and this year is now different as fully four continents -- North America, Asia, Africa and Australia -- are represented by players on the team.
"Four out of seven continents isn't bad," Sullivan said. "It'd be nice to have a kid from each continent. Maybe that'll be a goal."
Some of those far-ranging players are simply Americans living abroad, but others are international students who've never played the game before. That leaves plenty of teaching for Sullivan and his staff.
"We're so basic-oriented here with our fundamentals, they fit right in," Sullivan said. "Obviously it's a little different for them when we put pads on and stuff. It's just a matter of getting them ready. I like it. I came from Florida and everybody just grew up playing football there."
That consistent teaching can eventually pay off for R-MA -- last year, Chinese players David Lee and Ming Gong both started as seniors for the Yellow Jackets.
"It was awesome," Sullivan said. "They ended up being pretty good football players."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org