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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Encino Crespi leader a 'non-jock' who knows the score on sports

Father Tom Batsis admits to not having a sports background. But understanding the role of athletics at Crespi is perhaps why he quickly decided an alum should run the football program.

April 04, 2013|Eric Sondheimer

Father Tom Batsis, the new president of Encino Crespi, loves opera, plays and movies. If he didn't have to attend a single football or basketball game, he jokes, "I'd die a happy priest."

"I'm about as non-jock a jock as you're going to find,'' he said with a chuckle.

And yet, as most principals and those in charge of high schools soon learn, it's athletics that quickly become their center of attention, whether they like it or not.

Batsis made a quick, decisive judgment call last month in his fourth month on the job. Crespi's football coach of three years, Jon Mack, had decided to resign.

"I asked him repeatedly during our conversation, 'Please reconsider this. I don't want you to go,'" Batsis said. "He just said it was time for a change."

Troy Thomas, a Crespi grad and former head coach who was at Anaheim Servite, dropped by the school for an interview. And based on that interview, Batsis decided Thomas should be hired a day later.

"I was sold that he's a graduate of the school and really understands the school, and it's so important to have here someone who understands what the Crespi man is about," he said. "He really seemed to share my vision."

And that's the big news coming out of Crespi — a return to old school.

Batsis was plucked by the Carmelites from Loyola Marymount, where he had been a professor for 30 years, to put Crespi back on a path focused on academics, better discipline and getting its all-boys student body to understand the value of a Catholic education. And yes, sports figures in the equation.

He was at Crespi from 1975 to 1982, when he was a counselor and vice principal. He said one positive change he has seen since his last stint is a more diverse student body. He also has learned that fund-raising has become a key part of being a Catholic school administrator.

His lack of a sports background has left him a bit bewildered over the debate as to whether Catholic schools should be welcoming transfer students just because someone can throw a football, make a free throw or hit a baseball.

"If a kid wants to transfer, I want to know why," he said. "What's the motivation? Do they like our academic program? Are they able to stand up to the work, because this is a college prep school."

There are private schools across the Southland that need to fill their seats, especially with students who actually pay tuition, so taking in transfers is important in any business model.

But those schools that blindly take transfer students are also playing with fire. Some come with "baggage" that can produce problems. Giving someone a second chance is important, but so is upholding standards.

There's also an interesting dynamic going on regarding financial aid. Playa del Rey St. Bernard faced an exodus of students last fall after a change was made in financial aid.

"The school incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid tuition in the past few years because the school did not administer a financial needs test to determine whether a family qualified for aid," a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said.

St. Bernard's problems should be a wake-up call to other private schools.

Batsis said he was unclear how Crespi officials determined who received financial aid in the past and wants to develop a clear written policy for those seeking aid.

"My job is to clarify things and make sure the Carmelites' spirit is really operating," he said.

At 71, Batsis thought he was preparing for retirement. Now he has been called back to duty, and with Thomas as his football coach, you can count on Crespi having a clear vision for its future.

Maybe Batsis will get excited about football, along with "Phantom of the Opera."

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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