Tiny George Mason Stands Tall Among N.Va. Giants

By Preston Williams
Thursday, March 13, 2008

George Mason, the man, was a Founding Father of our country. George Mason, the high school? Stick "con" in front of "founding," and that starts to describe it. But confounding in a good way.

If your school can claim more peculiarities than Mason, a school whose girls' basketball team has earned a trip to tomorrow's state semifinals in Richmond, then by all means let us know.

Here goes:

George Mason is in densely packed Northern Virginia. It is surrounded by schools in the Virginia AAA classification, the state's largest. It is inside the Capital Beltway; the baseball field is 20 feet from Interstate 66 (hence the 120-foot backstop). Yet Mason is a Class A school, the state's smallest classification, with 795 students in grades eight through 12.

The Mustangs play in the six-team Bull Run District, with no nearby rivals. Manassas Park is 22 miles away, although it can feel like three times that when fighting evening westbound traffic on I-66. Clarke County (58 miles), Rappahannock County (64 miles), Strasburg (73 miles) and Madison County (81 miles) -- also westward destinations, in rural areas -- are the other league foes. Mustangs junior forward Kim Kenny said she was surprised the first time she heard country music during warmups out that way.

George Mason is constantly confused with another George M., George Marshall High School. Marshall is 1.3 miles west down Leesburg Pike (Route 7) from Mason and shares a Zip code. George Mason sometimes gets George Marshall's mail but not necessarily its attention if Mason Athletic Director Tom Horn, a 1988 Marshall graduate, is any indication. "The only way that I knew George Mason existed was because we had a kid transfer from Mason to Marshall when I was in high school," he said. Buses, officials and parents have shown up at Marshall when they are supposed to be at Mason.

George Mason also is confused with Falls Church High School, so fans wanting to go to Falls Church High often end up at Mason (Google "falls church virginia high school," and Mason is the first map link you get). Of course, it would stand to reason that Falls Church High School would serve the City of Falls Church, but Falls Church High School is a Fairfax County school, 6.5 miles from Mason. Mason is the high school for the City of Falls Church, even though Mason sits outside city limits.

When people hear "George Mason," they automatically think Fairfax, because that's where George Mason University is. Other than sharing a name -- the high school, established in 1952, had it first, by the way -- there is no relationship between GMHS and GMU.

The list goes on. Of the 96 Virginia A schools, George Mason is one of only two or three to offer lacrosse, according to the Virginia High School League. The school also offers swimming, a sport not available at most schools its size.

Mason is a small school that thinks big -- the Mustangs play AA and AAA schools in several sports -- and presumably should be big. But the town is a mere 2.2 square miles, and there is one school that serves each grade. So the kids who were in kindergarten and first grade at Mount Daniel Elementary later graduate together from Mason.

"It gives me a chance really to live in the city but have the small-school sense," said Bailey Walton, a senior guard on the girls' basketball team.

"I like being the little school that no one's ever heard of and kind of flying underneath the radar," said Kenny, who moved to Falls Church from Ohio when she was a freshman.

But for those outside the Mason community, it's hard to shake the perception that "Northern Virginia school" does not necessarily mean "big school." There really is no room for the city to expand unless other structures get torn down.

"Around the state, that is the constant question: 'How in the world does George Mason stay single A?' " said Horn, also the school's football coach and former baseball coach. "Our growth potential is limited. No one around the state can really believe that."

George Mason's most defining characteristic, though, is that it is a community high school perhaps like none other in the area. One of the reasons that Falls Church broke off from Fairfax County was to establish its own school system. More than 90 percent of parents of students in the system are PTA members. And 14 students from outside the City of Falls Church are attending George Mason this year at a tuition of $15,300 apiece, so the school must be doing something right.

Of the 151 graduates last year, 107 were involved in the International Baccalaureate program, and the average SAT score is 1737, 217 points higher than the state average. Forty-five of the school's 80 winter sports athletes boasted grade-point averages of 3.5 or higher. In spring sports, 360 students are involved.

"If we're not providing the kinds of opportunities to challenge kids and lead them to be successful in the classroom and on the field, we have people who will call us on it because it's a town school," Horn said.

So what if trying to describe George Mason, or its location, devolves into an Abbott and Costello routine, or that because the road trips are so long, parents prepare meals for the athletes to eat on the bus? Headed into the state tournament, the girls' basketball team had traveled an estimated 1,770 miles this season, the equivalent of a drive to Denver.

Most of the time, the George Mason confusion is a minor inconvenience. On occasion, it can be more serious.

A few years ago, a Mustangs baseball player broke his arm. An ambulance was called. When several minutes had passed and no help had arrived at the Mason field, Horn called 911 again.

Horn: We're still waiting for help.

Dispatcher: They're on site.

Horn: No, they're not.

Dispatcher: Yes, they are. They're right on the baseball field.

Horn: I'm standing on the baseball field. It's not that big. I don't see them.

The ambulance, of course, had gone to Marshall.

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams atwilliamsp@washpost.com.

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