Four years ago Jefferson High School began its conversion to a science and technology program by transferring its freshman class to Annandale. The steady stream of students moving to Annandale in each of the past three years has strengthened its athletic program, and revived the Atoms' football fortunes.
With the last of the original students now at Annandale, the Atoms appear to be back up among the contenders for the Northern Region football title. This year about 350 Jefferson seniors went to Annandale, pushing the Atoms' enrollment back to the level of the 1970's when they were a regional football power, and state title contender.
Annandale's enrollment now is about 2,200, which approaches the enrollment back in the years when the football team dominated Northern Virginia. According to athletic director-football coach Bob Hardage, the decrease in enrollment had its effect on the football field.
"Obviously when the enrollment drops, the number of possible football players drops," Hardage said. "We just didn't have the depth we had in those years when we had the success."
Under Hardage, who has been head coach at Annandale for 23 years, the Atoms won state titles in 1967, 1972 and 1978. Annandale also won or tied for nine of 11 district titles from 1971 to 1981. But since 1981, with enrollment declining to almost 1,800, the Atoms have not won the Potomac District championship.
"We haven't had the depth we have this year in many years," Hardage said. "We did get four starters from Jefferson, but this senior class (of original Annandale students) is also the strongest in several years."
In 1986 Annandale had 16 seniors on the varsity. This year the Atoms are a senior dominated team with 34. Former Colonial Ray Crittenden is likely to have the most impact of any player in Annandale's program.
Jefferson Coach Olan Faulk joked that he tried to make a deal with Hardage to keep Crittenden, a three-sport standout. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior was an all-Potomac District performer in football, basketball and soccer a year ago.
"Ray has the rare ability to be a game-breaker," Hardage said. "If a team makes a mistake he can change the outlook of the game. We have never had an athlete with all of Ray's abilities before."
Crittenden's opening game performance reinforced Hardage's comments. He was responsible for three touchdowns and kicked a 37-yard field goal. He intercepted a pass, returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown and rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns, one coming on a 91-yard run to lead the Atoms to a 31-14 win over Lake Braddock two weeks ago.
Offensive guard Kirk Duncan (6-0, 175), defensive end Tri Ngo (6-0, 175) and wide receiver Jimmy Freeman (6-3, 181) are the other ex-Colonials expected to make an impact this season. Hardage says that there has been no negatives involving the transfers. The coach said he "felt sorry," for Jefferson's juniors last year.
"They were like stepchildren in that they knew they weren't going to be at their school for their senior year," Hardage said. "They were in a no-win situation."
"When we first found out about the transfer we were hesistant," Crittenden said. "But once we started meeting them at Annandale we got along great. I liked it at Jefferson but with the transfer plan and the (low) numbers (of Jefferson players) it was too hard to compete."
While football is the main focus at Annandale other sports have also been the beneficiary of transfers. Field hockey coach Cindy Hook's squad has increased by 20 players. Basketball Coach Gary Reedy, who was returning four starters from a 15-7 team, gained two starters in Crittenden, who was the district's second leading scorer, and Freeman, a forward.
There have been two mergers in the past that have resulted in exceptionally strong athletic programs. Hammond and George Washington students moved to T.C. Williams, which now is the Northern Region's dominant football team. Three years ago Fort Hunt and Groveton merged to form West Potomac, which tied Mount Vernon for the the Gunston District football crown and advanced to the playoffs on a tiebreaker, in its first year.
Rarely do these mergers occur without problems. West Potomac Football Coach Dan Meier recalls some of the obstacles that prevented a smoother transition.
"When the two schools merged there were two department heads for one position," Meier said. "Also each school's students had their own traditions it wanted to keep instead of starting new ones. It caused a lot of hard feelings."
But the Annandale-Jefferson merger is unlike the other two in that neither school is being closed down. The teachers from Jefferson were relocated throughout the Fairfax County system to make room for more specialized teachers.
Hardage has played down the transfers' role on the football team this year, saying he had a good number of seniors returning before the transfers came over. However, opposing coaches have a different idea.
"It will give Bob some of the depth he's been lacking in recent years," Wakefield Coach Jim Huffscmidt, whose Warriors compete with the Atoms in the Potomac District, said. "Of course Crittenden is just a super athlete, and he's got to make an impact."
Hardage counters that the Atoms were expecting a fine 1987 regardless of the new students. The coach is quick to name Chris Brown, Julio Lacayo, Jim Knapp, Ralph Renzi and Jay Price as three-year varsity performers who will play important roles this season. But Hardage does admit the extra players have meant added flexibility and increased competition.
"We don't have to make as many adjustments when an injury occurs," Hardage said. "Also, kids don't miss practice any more because they know if they do they'll lose their job."