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.