For George Mason High School athletes, the road is a second home

By James Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 12:47 AM

The dismissal bell for class at George Mason High School rings at 3 p.m. For clock-watching students, it's a chance to break free from eight hours of school. For those who play sports - like senior Amanda Rolander, a guard on the girls' basketball team - the day is far from over. By 3 p.m., Rolander and her teammates are in the cafeteria, already in uniform thanks to a 15-minute head start, munching on a parent-provided snack of burritos and clementines while waiting for a school bus. They will soon embark on another eight-hour commitment.

Because George Mason, the city of Falls Church's lone high school, is in the state's smallest size classification, its teams must regularly travel far outside densely populated Northern Virginia, often four or five counties away, to play similarly sized single-A schools. For a recent ride to Madison County High School, George Mason's most distant district opponent, Rolander boards the bus with her red basketball bag, a pillow, a blue blanket and homework. And in the 79 miles to its game, the team will pass some of the larger schools that surround it (six within six miles), amassing as much as six times the mileage.

Life in George Mason athletics is a life on the road. And it's as much a part of the identity of this school of 650 students as is its growing mantle of state titles (five in the last year alone). And in their way, students and families at the region's most well-traveled public school find ways to cope and embrace the long trips to Madison County, Strasburg High School (144 miles round trip) and farther.

"We become closer as a team," said Rolander, her English homework, the Zora Neale Hurston novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" sitting on her lap. "Everyone gets to talk. We are in a close environment for four hours. I don't know if a lot of other teams are that close for four hours."

Mustangs' unique spot

Originally a AA school, George Mason was dropped down a classification in 1982 as enrollments at schools around it ballooned. With little room for tiny Falls Church to expand within its 2.2 square miles, George Mason will likely stay a single-A school indefinitely.

George Mason ranks among the region's best high schools in a community of about 12,000 that is among the most educated and affluent in the country. The school sits just outside the city's northwestern boundary on Leesburg Pike, about a mile and a half away from Marshall, a Fairfax County public school. The six closest high schools are two to three times George Mason's size, and thus, grouped into the state's largest classification, AAA.

George Mason's district, the Bull Run, is a collection of all the closest single A schools from central to northern Virginia: Clarke County, Madison County, Manassas Park, Rappahannock County and Strasburg. For George Mason, this adds up to an average district round trip of nearly 117 miles. For Marshall - which belongs to the AAA Liberty District with nearby schools such as McLean, Fairfax and South Lakes - the average district round trip is 18 miles.

"I didn't really understand or experience that this was different until a year or two ago," said George Mason senior Patrick Rollo, who logged nearly 1,800 miles of travel last season en route to a state title with the boys' soccer team. "I started to be like, 'Wait, there are a lot of schools around here. Why are we going two hours to play somebody?' "

George Mason's football team traveled more than 620 miles this fall - including non-district games at Luray and Colonial Beach, nearly four-hour rides each. Nearby McLean, however, covered 87 miles total, over half in one 45-mile round trip to face district rival Stone Bridge in Loudoun County. This season, George Mason's two-time defending state champion girls' basketball team will log nearly 1,300 miles.

"It's kind of part of the territory when you join the team," said sophomore Stephanie Cheney, a forward on the girls' basketball team, "you're going to travel."

To deal, George Mason students learn to manage their time, squeezing in some homework on the noisy and bouncy bus rides or the night before or during a study hall or after games. Dentist appointments and music lessons must be scheduled around away games. On the 1-hour, 45-minute ride to Madison County, many girls slept (junior Lauren Kane sprawled out facedown across two rows), listened to music (freshman Ashley Alexander) or gossiped with friends (junior Krista Kelly) .

As the varsity girls waited for the junior varsity game to end - both teams ride on the same bus - they braided other players' hair, did a little more homework or spent time on their Facebook pages. By 7:30 p.m., more than two hours after arriving, the idle varsity girls finally took the court for warmups. The game, a 58-26 win, ended at 9:07 p.m. and the team was back on the road by 9:20 p.m. with a planned snack-stop at a Sheetz gas station 30 minutes north, an unofficial school tradition.

During the ride home, freshman Claire Trevisan was the lone player attempting to do her homework. With a dim booklight, she worked intermittently on a Spanish oral exam for the following day. (George Mason's athletic director, Tom Horn, said he is considering buying and issuing book lights for all student-athletes.) But mostly, the dark inside of the bus hummed with chatter, faint music, singing and the soft glow of cellphones.

Parental support

To keep up, George Mason parents also adjust their routines. In order to watch the junior varsity game that day at Madison County, junior Leah Roth's mother, Barb Mullen-Roth, used an hour of vacation time to slip out of work at 3:30 p.m., to meet her husband at home by 4 p.m. and hitch a ride with Cheney's father.

"We get a great amount of joy watching them play something that they enjoy playing," said Mullen-Roth, whose other daughter, Ava Roth, plays junior varsity basketball. "[My husband] Jesse and I are never going to say, 'We're tired of driving.' This is about them."

In addition to dealing with long trips and traffic, there are some logistical quirks. Some schools, such as Madison County or Clarke County, don't have lights at some of their facilities, such as the soccer, baseball or softball fields. So those games must start earlier, sometimes 5:30 p.m. ("We never take batting practice at a 5 o'clock start," Horn said.) And because the junior varsity team plays just before, at 4 p.m. at the same school, the varsity players get out of school as early as 1 p.m. for those trips.

Getting back late from away games is such a common issue that there's even a rule to deal with it. If the bus arrives from a game after midnight, students are allowed a voluntary one-hour delay the next morning. The "midnight rule," as it's known, only gets used about six times a year, Horn said.

The journey lengthens

Next season, George Mason's travel will get worse. Two new schools - William Monroe in Greene County (180 miles round trip) and Central-Woodstock in Shenandoah County (170 miles round trip) - will join the Bull Run District. Both will become George Mason's farthest regular trips, putting more strain on the students.

"It's going to be my senior year next year and basketball is mostly in the first semester, which is more work than the second semester of senior year," said Leah Roth, who also plays for the three-time defending state soccer champions in the spring and works a part-time job on the weekends. "It's going to be hard especially going that far. It's stressful. To me, it's a challenge and I'm not going to stop playing because of it."

The bus on that trip to Madison County pulled into the George Mason parking lot at 11:09 p.m. Facing the prospect of staying up until about 1 a.m. finishing an art project and some math work, Kelly promptly got off the bus to head home. Doing work with a cellphone light on a bumpy bus wouldn't do. And after 16 hours of class and basketball, she is also tired. "It's hard after a long day," she said.

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