George Mason High School's athletic teams know how to travel in style. For most road games, they no longer take school buses; they take smooth-riding commercial buses equipped with plush seats and bathrooms.
George Mason's teams are allowed such luxury because they often spend more time on their buses on a single trip than some Northern Virginia teams do for all their trips in a season.
George Mason, located on Leesburg Pike in Falls Church, has the misfortune of being the only Group A (500 students or less) high school in Fairfax County. All the others are AAA (1000 students or more). That raises the question of which teams it can play locally on an equal basis.
The answer is, no other public school in most sports. Marshall, Yorktown and Falls Church high schools are within a two-mile radius, yet George Mason's teams must take 1 1/2- to two-hour rides (each way) to play the likes of Group A opponents Rappahannock, Page County and Stonewall Jackson. Often, those trips are made on weeknights.
No one at George Mason likes the rides, although the school board's permission to use commercial buses has made rides more tolerable the past two years. The coaches, however, understand the problems.
"I don't think I get sick of it, but the rides do burn me out," said Jim Spiridopoulos, who gets a double dose each year because he coaches girls basketball (Virginia's Class A teams play in the fall) and boys basketball.
"The AAA teams won't play us, and I understand that," said Spiridopoulos. "They have nothing to gain and everything to lose by playing us. If they win, it only means they beat an A school. And some of them know, in certain years, if we get them here in our building, we might beat them. If I were coaching a AAA team under those circumstances, I don't think I would schedule us, either."
His girls team, behind 10-point-a-game scorers Laura Jacomet and Margaret Byrd, finished 11-7 this past season, but Spiridopoulos' boys are having trouble beating even A teams this year. The Mustangs are experiencing their worst start ever at 3-10, 2-6 in the league.
George Mason was a AA school until 1980. That year, it won district titles in soccer, track and boys basketball. The baseball team won the state title.
It was the football team, which requires more players to be competitive than any other sport, that was falling upon harder times as the enrollment continued to fall. The football team went 1-9 that year, and the decision was made to not again apply for a state waiver that allowed Mason to play at AA, even though it had less than the required number of students.
Some local schools played George Mason looking to pick up easy nonleague wins. They could justify scheduling an AA school. But they did not feel they could justify scheduling an A school, even if it made for a great neighborhood rivalry.
Joining the Class A Bull Run District, which has grown to seven schools, meant traveling. Coaches cannot pinpoint how much of a disadvantage this means for their players, but they agree it doesn't help.
"You take a kid in here at 7:30 in the morning," Athletic Director Arnie Siegfried said. "He goes to his classes and, if we're going to a place like Stonewall (in Mount Jackson) after classes, he waits until the bus leaves about 4 o'clock for a 2-hour 10-minute bus ride. Then he gets home about midnight and has to be back at school the next morning. That's asking an awful lot."
Jack Gambill, who has coached football at George Mason since 1959 and had a 5-4-1 record in 1984, said better buses have helped eliminate headaches and queasy stomachs that some players had to take the field with. But he can remember one instance in which he felt the long ride cost his team.
"Two years ago, a Friday night game at Stonewall was rained out. It was rescheduled for Saturday, but we couldn't arrange to get a commercial bus that day," said Gambill. "We had to take a school bus, and let me tell you, there is no way to be comfortable that long on a school bus. And it's so loud, people talk louder to be heard. I remember we ended up in a 14-14 tie, but I felt we would have won that game if we had played Friday and didn't have to take that school bus Saturday."
Scheduling nonleague games remains a problem. Spiridopoulos is grateful O'Connell invited his boys team to its Christmas tournament this year, but he says, "I know it was probably because they wanted to make sure their team got to the finals." O'Connell defeated George Mason in an opening-round game.
A game scheduled for this year with Riverhead was canceled when Riverhead's administrators realized it would require a two-hour ride.
Another problem Spiridopoulos cites at the A level is limited practice time because the gym must be shared with the volleyball team and local community center teams. He also said fewer players to draw from creates less competition among players.
"Our best player is not pushed in practice, so he knows it doesn't matter how well he plays," said Spiridopoulos. "Even if I take him out, he knows he'll be playing again soon because the dropoff in talent is so great beyond the top few. They don't have that motivation to play harder."
Small enrollment also forces sports at the school to compete with each other for the good athletes. Girls track was dropped recently, and the girls soccer team, which has the same season as the basketball team, may be eliminated, Siegfried said.
The problems of being a Group A island surrounded by an ocean of AAA schools are many, but the coaches agree the drop to A was a good one.
"I would rather drive 200 miles for a chance to win," said Gambill. "We've developed a pretty good rivalry with Clarke County, even though it's about an hour and 45 minutes away. It's not like playing Falls Church, but it's better than driving next door knowing you're going to lose."