In 13 Years, River Hill Has Grown Used to Being Known As a School of Champions

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

The incentive is in the decor. Any River Hill High School athlete who strolls down the corridor outside the gymnasium passes six trophy cases stuffed with all sorts of memorabilia -- if a 13-year-old school can display something old enough to be considered memorabilia. ยท Enter the gym and you have to hunt for the American flag, the walls are so draped with banners detailing the Howard County school's 73 county championships, 56 region championships and 28 state championships, as well as other state finalist squads and all-Americans.

Since the winter of 2006, the Hawks have taken home to Clarksville 11 state titles in seven sports, all from the fall and winter seasons. In the fall of 2007 alone, five teams won state crowns.

"Sometimes it's like you come here on a Monday and say, 'This past weekend, we won the state championship,' " said senior Alicia Seelaus, who runs cross-country and plays basketball. "[And somebody will say], 'Oh, cool. So did soccer.' "

A powerhouse athletic program is a source of pride and identity for a school and the community it represents. And the expectation to win can serve as inspiration to one athlete or coach, but pressure to another.

"All these coaches look at it as, 'Hey, I want to win a state championship,' " said boys' basketball coach Matt Graves, whose team snagged one in 2007. " 'He's winning one, she's winning one. I need to find a way to win one.' You want the press in the newspaper, you want to be on TV, you want to hear people talk about you when you're in the mall or the grocery store. It's a good feeling."

River Hill, located in the one of the most affluent parts of what Forbes magazine considers the third-most affluent county in the country, is not a particularly big school. It has about 1,350 students and competes in the Maryland 2A classification, the second-smallest of the four in the state, although it is one of the larger 2A schools and formerly one of the smaller 3A schools.

Yet in the fall and winter, the teams are so strong that nearly every one contends for a state championship.

"It's sometimes hard to play a varsity sport, because there are so many good athletes and the teams are so good that a lot of times people have a tough time breaking the lineup," said two-time state champion wrestler Scott Mantua, a senior.

"These kids, some of them are just amazing at what they do," said senior Kathryn Rodgers, a basketball player and member of the girls' soccer team that recently won its third consecutive state title. "I'm so lucky that I get to play with them and watch them play, because the sports atmosphere is just insane."

Starting Out Right

So how did River Hill, which opened in 1996 and drew students from Atholton and Glenelg high schools, become so good at so many sports in such a relatively short time?

It started with the original coaching staff. The school's first principal, Scott Pfeifer, who moved over from Atholton, brought in some veteran coaches who provided a sturdy framework. Bill Stara had won seven boys' soccer state titles at Centennial. Earl Lauer, another Atholton transplant who helped start the cross-country, wrestling and track and field teams at River Hill, also was a state title-winning coach.

Pfeifer's "mind-set was: I want the best teachers that can coach," said girls' basketball coach Teresa Waters, who led Oakland Mills to a state title in 1998 while she was teaching at River Hill, and later took over the Hawks' team. "The same expectations we have for the kids are the same expectations for the coaches. That's constant learning. I don't care how many years you've put into it."

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