Woodgrove High athletics program is thriving in Virginia AA girls’ sports in only its second year

Richard Lipski/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Woodgrove softball players, including pitcher Allie Reid, left foreground, celebrate a 9-0 win over Briar Woods on April 19. The Wolverines’ softball team is part of an already impressive athletic program at the second-year Loudoun school.

When the Woodgrove girls’ lacrosse team completed a stunning district title run last May, their on-field celebration lacked the traditional championship banner. The first-year school hadn’t purchased one yet.

Last week when the Wolverines defended their crown, they were better prepared — and so were the softball, girls’ soccer and girls’ tennis teams.

Pioneers when they claimed the school’s first district title in any sport, Woodgrove’s girls’ lacrosse team is now one of four girls’ teams plowing through the postseason this spring. In only its second year, Purcellville’s second high school is establishing itself as a juggernaut in Virginia AA girls’ sports.

The girls’ lacrosse team that started it all hosts crosstown rival Loudoun Valley on Wednesday night in a regional semifinal. This month the Woodgrove girls have already won Dulles District championships in lacrosse, soccer, softball and tennis.

Now, as Virginia’s playoff format moves into regional and state tournament play, the school hopes soon to be raising a different kind of banner.

“Almost everyone is an athlete here, and many of us play multiple sports,” said Sarah Hardison, the soccer team’s second-leading goal-scorer and the leading scorer on Woodgrove’s state semifinalist basketball team. “We had a unique opportunity to start something new here. And it helps that everybody is talented.”

When Allder School Road finally opened to traffic in front of Woodgrove, Lisa Hemphill and her father began a series of weekly drive-bys to monitor the progress next to the hole in the ground that would become her new high school.

Then a sophomore at nearby Loudoun Valley, Hemphill and hundreds of her classmates eagerly awaited the August 2010 completion of the new school, built to ease the overcrowding at Loudoun Valley, which opened in 1962. On each visit, Hemphill, a middie on the Vikings’ junior varsity lacrosse team, paid close attention to the stadium and its glistening turf, where she hoped to help Woodgrove build its athletic program from the ground up.

Without question, however, Loudoun Valley has played a major role in the Wolverines’ rise. Among the underclassmen who followed the lure of a fresh start in a new building with top-notch athletic facilities were 10 members of Loudoun Valley’s varsity soccer team, seven varsity softball players, a trio of varsity lacrosse players and the bulk of Hemphill’s JV lacrosse team.

Then the Wolverines hired away several key members of Loudoun Valley’s coaching staff, including longtime softball coach Joe Spicer, varsity soccer assistant Erin Barrett and junior varsity lacrosse coach Bob Fuller to build programs with plenty of familiar faces.

While the school was devoid of seniors, many of teams — particularly on the girls’ side — had already been playing together for years, easing the transition.

In their inaugural season, the girls’ lacrosse team went unbeaten to capture the school’s first district championship.

“It was amazing to do that in our first year,” Hemphill said. “But we weren’t really a first-year team, we were just a first-year varsity team.”

Still, the immediate results for the lacrosse team, which advanced to the state quarterfinals, and the softball team, which made it all the way to the state final, came as a pleasant surprise. And in the spring, when girls are afforded more varsity sports options than in any other season, the wide dissemination of talent has some coaches scratching their heads.

“Usually you’re borrowing girls from one sport to another so you’re spreading yourselves thin,” Barrett said. “This is a rare experience, and honestly, we’re boggled.”

At Loudoun Valley, many of the Wolverines’ current stars were buried on the depth chart behind upperclassmen. At Woodgrove, everyone came in as an underclassman, opening opportunities for talent to rise to the surface. Eight soccer players have already committed to Division I programs and the softball, lacrosse and tennis teams will also send athletes on to play in college. And while the boys’ teams did not make as big of a splash in year one — aside from the basketball team’s run to the region semifinals, they are catching up. The lacrosse team faces Briar Woods in a region semifinal Wednesday night and the baseball team has qualified for the region tournament.

“Everyone had that other player — usually a senior — in front of them, playing the same position,” senior softball pitcher Allie Reid said. “Coming here, we were all underclassmen together, and everyone had a chance to show they deserved to play.”

Athletic Director Rusty Lowery, who was at South Riding’s Freedom High when it opened in 2005, is quick to draw a comparison to Ashburn powerhouse Stone Bridge. Like Stone Bridge, Woodgrove opened with more than 1,000 students in Virginia’s mid-sized AA classification, providing a broad talent base rarely seen at a first-year school. The grass and turf practice fields were an added bonus and have allowed teams to prepare for any surface and practice daily, rain or shine.

“When you have the ability to open up with that many kids, you know you have a lot of kids who have the opportunity to play and participate, for one.” Lowery said. “But two, you are able to play hard and compete early — and fortunately, we’ve had some success.”

When the girls’ lacrosse team clinched the district title last spring, Lowery had yet to purchase a championship banner — a superstitious nod to his baseball background. Now, seemingly every week a different team is raising a district championship flag in the schoolyard. But there’s one white flag hanging outside Lowery’s office that has yet to reach the top of the flag pole — it reads “State Champion.”

“It’s sort of a race to see who gets there first,” Hemphill said. “Hopefully it happens for all of us this spring. But we have so much potential that somebody will raise that flag soon.”

 
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