This story will appear in the Jan. 12 editions of the Catoosa County News and the Walker County Messenger.
Lance James hadn't been out of high school or college for that long when he was named treasurer of the newly-minted North Georgia Athletic Conference (NGAC), a league designed to govern and run middle school athletics primarily in Catoosa and Walker Counties.
The NGAC was formed to replace what had been the Interstate Athletic Conference (IAC), a league of northwest Georgia and Chattanooga areas schools, such as McCallie and GPS, that had been in place for several years.
That was in 1999 and James, a Rossville High School (Class of 1989) graduate just four years removed from getting his degree at UTC, suddenly found himself appointed to his new position with the league.
Then in 2002, James and fellow NGAC officer Scott Sizemore began a search for a new league president after Shane Pendley announced he was stepping down from the post.
That search would eventually end with the naming of a new NGAC president, albeit one that wasn't so sure how he would fare in his new role.
"Somehow it ended up being me," James recalled. "I didn't feel confident enough to do it, but that's who we came up with, so I said I'd do it for a year. Then one year became 18."
Having served 17 years longer than any other person to ever hold that post, James finally stepped down at the end of last school year. Heritage's Mathon Culpepper, the varsity boys' head basketball coach at the school, took over as league president, though James is staying on as treasurer until the end of the 2021-22 school year, a position he has held since the new millennium started.
"I miss working with all the athletic directors, the (NGAC) Board of Directors, the (school) administrators, the referees, umpires and their assigners, and the other adults that work hard for our student-athletes so the league will have a good product," said James, who is also staying involved as the athletic director at CVMS. "There's some really great people that work really hard to make sure all these games go on like they do."
He said one of the things he enjoyed about being president was helping to put on first-class postseason events.
"It was rewarding when one of our tournaments ended and the student-athletes had an experience like a high school tournament and everything went off without a hitch," he said. "The referees, the teams, the awards, the media, everybody and everything was there and (it was rewarding) just knowing that I had a little bit to do with it all going down correctly."
Of course, in any league where competitive sports are involved, things are guaranteed to not go so smoothly at times. However, it was in those times when James said he did his best to do whatever was best for everyone involved.
"The hardest part was when there were disagreements or problems between schools about games," he went on. "People want what's best for their schools and teams, so I always tried to work out a solution or a compromise. We follow GHSA rules the best we can, but there's always going to be disagreements in sports. I just tried to make things fair. That was the main thing."
Echoing that sentiment was former Gordon Lee Middle School athletic director Kim Towns, who worked with James for well over a decade and said that James was not only a great leader for the league, but a great friend.
"He just really brought us all together," she said. "I feel like he was always looking out for all the kids from all the schools. He really kept the league afloat for a lot of years. He's going to be missed for sure."
James said he also gave Culpepper an important piece of advice.
"Don't respond to problems too quickly," he explained. "If you have a negative to come up, wait a day, or at least an hour, before you return that email, and try your best not to take it all home with you."
"He's been a great role model," Culpepper said, "He (also) said to always be a good listener and he listened to all the schools. It's big shoes to fill. He's done such a great job these last 17 or 18 years and (he) got the league through a lot of tough times, especially with the tornadoes (2011) and COVID. He's just done a great job."
After nearly two decades as league president, James said he can now look back and better appreciate the impact that the job had on him.
"When I think back on it, besides the relationships I've made with students and others here at Chattanooga Valley, I think that me working as the NGAC president really defines my career as an educator," he added. "To me, that was a job where I got to be in contact with lots and lots of adults and students and I got to help."
"He'll definitely been missed," Towns added. "He was fair to all sides and he believed what I believe - it's all about the kids."