Varsity Letter: John Champe High nears completion with plenty of excitement

June 19, 2012

It’s hard to say who was more excited at a recent meet-the-coaches night for new Loudoun County school John Champe High — the students who would be attending the school in the fall, the parents who were considering enrolling their kids there or the coaches who were starting their own athletic programs.

Such is the start-from-scratch anticipatory vibe at these meet-and-greets, particularly at yet-to-open schools. This was the third such event for Champe Athletic Director Joe Breinig Jr., who has been hiring coaches for the past several months and periodically rolling them out to answer questions from Aldie residents.

Some students have the choice to remain at Freedom-South Riding High or to attend Champe (pronounced as if the “e” were not there; more on that later). The school is so new that the meetings are held in the Mercer Middle School auditorium because Champe is still under construction.

“If you don’t get goosebumps when you’re here,” said Champe football Coach Jason Dawson, who met with several parents and players and was already wearing a whistle, “there’s something wrong with you. Everybody comes to this just expectations through the roof.”

That was an apt description for Matt Radice, a rising sophomore who wrestles and plays football, and his mother, Michelle. They own Champe spiritwear even though technically there is no Champe yet. Matt figures he has a better chance to earn varsity football playing time for the Knights because Champe will open with no senior class and a relatively small junior class. Michelle Radice, energized by a cheesily informative faux newscast (The Knightly News) on Champe’s Web site, already has secured a spot on the school’s concession stand committee. The “UKnight & Excite” event Aug. 24 and football season home opener that night against Osbourn Park cannot come soon enough.

“You see the energy with the coaches, you see the energy with [Breinig],” Michelle Radice said. “You get swooped up in it.”

“The lines are drawn now with the kids,” said Champe boys’ track coach Brandon Sanford, who is coming over after spending six years at Freedom. “The kids are really pro-Champe or they’re really pro-Freedom. It’s already a rivalry. It’s just excitement all over, everywhere, every sport.”

Parents and athletes come ready to ask questions. They want to know when offseason training begins (it was Jan. 9 for football, shortly after Dawson was hired), what camps the teams might be going to, the coaches’ approach to students juggling schoolwork and sports, whether the teams will play a varsity schedule (yes, including in football, with a variety-pack schedule of Virginia A, AA and AAA teams).

“We wanted to get a sense of how this whole Champe family is sort of starting to take shape,” said Jeff Jones, whose daughter Taylor is a Mercer eighth-grader who plays volleyball. “We heard exactly what we expected to hear.”

The 13th Loudoun high school — and the eighth to open since 2000 — is the only one in the county to be named after a person. John Champe, an Aldie resident described in historical accounts as “rather above the common size — full of bone and muscle . . . grave, thoughtful, taciturn — of tried courage and inflexible perseverance,” was dispatched by Gen. George Washington to try to capture Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold.

The last two times the county opened a new high school, it opened two — Tuscarora and Woodgrove in 2010 and Freedom and Briar Woods in 2005. This year, it’s all Champe.

“We’re the only show in town, and we’re trying to capi­tal­ize on that,” said Breinig, who was athletic director at Park View for six years and an assistant at Broad Run before that and whose father was an athletic director in the county for decades. “Now you can go to elementary, middle and high school in the same community. There’s a sense of family, something we can call our own.”

Okay, so about that name. From a sports standpoint, a school named “Champe” can come across as inadvertently cocky. That “e” might be silent, but the smart alecks won’t be if the Knights struggle. Champe could become Chump in a hurry.

“It’s certainly a name you have to make sure you hold up your end of the bargain,” Breinig said.

Volleyball Coach Glen Gragasin joked that the school’s nickname should have been the Pions, because when you tack that on to the school name, you get Champe-pions. Dawson has instructed his players to politely but firmly correct anyone who mispronounces the school name as “Champee.” Excuse me, it’s Champe.

“It’s the greatest name you can have,” Dawson said. “There’s an inherent expectation that you can be good, but what else would you expect? The reality is here you can be good.”

Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area.

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