Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of high schools that have opened in the Virginia suburbs since 2000 as well as the number that have opened in inner suburbs. This version has been corrected.
Every couple of months last year, Battlefield running back J.J. Johnson and his father would drive to the high school being built near their home to check on its progress. J.J. intended to enroll at new Patriot High, in Nokesville, this fall.
But during his Battlefield freshman football team’s undefeated season — and the varsity’s march to the Virginia AAA Division 6 title — the younger Johnson decided he would return to Battlefield. Why leave a winner?
In May, however, Johnson changed his mind yet again. As he heard about more of his freshman teammates enrolling at Patriot, he decided, once and for all, to become a Pioneer and help start a new high school program in western Prince William County.
“It was on my mind a lot, even after I made the decision to come to Patriot,” Johnson said.
He was not alone in his waffling. Dozens of rising sophomores and juniors had a choice about which high school to attend, a decision that thousands of Northern Virginia students have faced in recent years.
Tucked between horse and cattle farms, and unfindable by name on some GPS devices, Patriot is the 15th high school to open in the Virginia suburbs since 2000. Only two of those new schools — Westfield and South County, both in Fairfax County — are located in what would be considered an inner suburb. The others were built in Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford and Fauquier counties, testament to the population boom and housing growth in those outer areas.
Johnson’s choice: Stay with state champ Battlefield, which has gone 44-6 over the past four years, has an established coaching staff and is only eight years old itself? Or start anew at Patriot, whose turf fields and other amenities make for the best facilities in Prince William County, but which will have no senior class its first year and whose football program will field only junior varsity and freshman teams this fall?
“I basically tried to stay out of it,” said James Johnson, J.J.’s father. “If I went to a school that had just won the state championship and had the opportunity in upcoming years to be the featured running back at that school, I would have stayed.”
“His friends from Battlefield all said they just couldn’t understand it,” Tracy Martin said about her son Zack, a junior who opted for Patriot. “When football started, they kept texting him and calling him saying, ‘We think this is just a joke and that you’ll show up for practice at Battlefield.’ ”
Patriot Principal Michael E. Bishop is a former football coach at Courtland and Hanover high schools, and he started the latter program and as an administrator helped open Cosby High, in the Richmond area. He knows the push and pull that up-for-grabs students feel when a new high school opens.
“The kids who chose to come here really made a conscious choice to be part of something new,” Bishop said as he watched football practice from a golf cart on the track one recent morning. “That was a courageous decision.”
New high schools are appealing to students eager to flee their overcrowded schools and get a fresh start, even if it means trading their comfort zones for a strange environment. Athletes might feel they were overlooked at their former school and welcome the chance to audition for coaches with no preconceived notions about them. Or maybe they felt outmanned in accomplished programs.
Regardless the reason, about 150 players are out for Patriot football, a staggering number considering there is no senior class and only 25 juniors in the program.
“Battlefield is a great academic high school, but there are a lot of kids at that school,” said Patriot Coach Brud Bicknell, 53, who led Charlottesville school Monticello, a program he started in 1998, to a Virginia AA Division 3 title in 2007.
“You can come to a brand new facility that has maybe half as many students and the opportunities are a little greater,” Bicknell said. “I’m sure from an athletic standpoint there may have been some playing-time issues. Am I going to see the field at Battlefield? They’ve got a good group coming back. Or can I be a part of something exciting and first?”
Patriot, an $84 million school so new it does not yet have a Kettle Run Road street sign to direct visitors to it off Vint Hill Road, takes that fresh-start feel a step further with an architecturally pleasing design that tends to hook would-be students and their parents.
There are turf stadium and practice fields. The school logo emblazons the lifting benches in the 2,940-square-foot weight room. Quotes from legendary coaches Bear Bryant and Don Shula greet visitors entering the auxiliary gym.
About half of the school’s non-freshman students are coming over from Virginia AA Brentsville High School, which is three miles away, and most of the rest are coming from Battlefield, which is 11 miles away. It’s an interesting mix: Battlefield players are accustomed to winning at all levels; the Brentsville varsity has won three games in three years, with no winning season since 2002.
With a projected first-year enrollment of 1,600 students in a school built for 2,300, Patriot will play an independent varsity football schedule in 2012 and then join the AAA Cedar Run District in 2013. The other Patriot sports all plan to field varsity teams this school year.
“We’re not going to tolerate: ‘This is the way we did it at Battlefield. This is the way we did it at Brentsville,’” Bicknell said. “We’re all Patriot Pioneers right now, and this is the way we’re doing it.”
That term “Patriot Pioneers” is throwing off some players, because the name of the school sounds like a team nickname. Breaking a huddle at one early practice, a player instructed his teammates to shout “Patriots!” on the count of three. They reminded him that they are the Pioneers, not the Patriots.
Patriot will play seven home games, including four on Friday nights against JV squads whose varsities are on byes that week. The season finale is a Friday night home game against Battlefield, the second of the teams’ two meetings this season.
Those two games will be meaningful for a lot of former Bobcats, perhaps none more than Vic Ceglie, one of two Battlefield assistant football coaches to make the move to the new school.
His son, Vic Jr., a standout on the Battlefield freshman team last year, will be a sophomore at Patriot, the Ceglies’ zone school.
“A lot of the kids stayed at Battlefield,” the elder Ceglie said. “And I don’t blame them. I would, too. My thing is it’s so nice to have two great schools close together. I hope we can have a nice, friendly rivalry to bring the community together and make it a lot of fun.”