First in a series of occasional articles.
Last July 1, when Dave Hembach reported for his first day of work as athletic director at Stone Bridge High School, all that stood on the new Ashburn campus was a foundation and a skeleton of the building. But that was still more than what Hembach had to start with in terms of his athletic department.
He was Stone Bridge athletics.
Hembach is responsible for creating every court, field and facility, buying every ball, mat and uniform, hiring every coach, trainer and manager, before the school opens in August, all while staying within a strict budget. While it is a rare opportunity to create a program such as this that will showcase Hembach's fingerprints on most of its components, it is a daunting task--even for someone like Hembach, who had eight years' experience as athletic director at Park View before taking this position.
"It's a big job," said Hembach, whose work is still in progress. "You're like a politician who wins an election, gets to the office and says, 'Okay, now what?' "
The toughest part about building an athletic program is that there is no formal blueprint nor a strict basis for comparison. Even if there are other nearby schools with equal or similar budgets and targeted enrollments, the demands, preferences and styles of student-athletes perpetually change. Stone Bridge, with anticipated enrollment of 1,600 when it reaches capacity in 2001-02, is the second of five Loudoun County high schools opening during a 10-year period, which will ultimately double the number present in 1997.
"It a massive job to get it all together," said Lou Tiano, supervisor of health, physical education and athletics for Loudoun County schools. "Having Dave in there alleviates some of the pressure off us."
And in each case with the new Loudoun schools, the manner in which the athletic director creates the program will differ--equipment will become more advanced and specialized, certain sports will go through fads, gaining or losing popularity among participants and spectators, and travel and scheduling demands increase.
"There's nothing that's a prototype for this or any position. It's going to change every year," Hembach said. "While I was [at Park View] for 14 years [in multiple capacities], there were eight years [after the school's 1976 opening] that I wasn't there. And if I had a dollar for every time I heard, 'This is what we used to do . . .' I wouldn't be working. You have to make some changes over time."
Unlike Jerry Carter at Liberty or Charlie Lutman at Potomac Falls, athletic directors at schools that opened in 1994 and 1997, respectively, Hembach was given a full year to work solely on putting together his program.
"Loudoun County has put Dave in such a good position where he could really build this program properly," said Carter. When Carter gained his position in February 1994, he still had to finish the school year as athletic director at Bealeton's Cedar Lee Middle School, a position he had held for nine years, while getting Liberty's program off the ground. "And an extra good thing for Dave is that he's not a coach and he's not a teacher, so he can focus all his energies on this job."
Lutman was the last Loudoun County high school athletic director to build a program from scratch when Potomac Falls opened with a targeted enrollment of 1,350 students. Hembach went directly to Lutman and picked his brain for any information about a plan of attack.
"The first thing I did was go to Potomac Falls and have Charlie take me around the school," Hembach said. "[Lutman] is my assistant AD. I don't believe in reinventing the wheel when things are working fine."
Like Hembach, Lutman had experience as an athletic director, leading Clarke County's program for 28 years.
"I took things I did [at Clarke County] and used them as a blueprint for everything I did here," Lutman said. "But [Hembach] had to upgrade on everything I did because he has more kids. At least this gave him a format for how many to order because he never ordered that many when he was at Park View."
Ask any athletic director starting a program, and he will say unequivocally the hardest part of the start-up job was purchasing equipment. Hembach's shopping list is nearly endless, and his budget of $360,000 is not as lavish as it appears. Athletics do not receive annual funding in the school budget. Revenue generated from ticket sales, concessions and fund-raising is expected to cover all operating costs. So when purchasing equipment and uniforms, Hembach had to think long-term and maximize the use of these purchases.
"With athletics, you're on your own after the first year," Hembach said. "You have to generate revenue from gate receipts, concessions, fund-raising and other sources. When I took over at Park View, there was only $5,000 in the Athletic Department's account. At Park View, it was more of completing a replenishment cycle. I didn't have to order as much equipment."
Hembach was also on his own in the sense he didn't have coaches to consult with when dealing with vendors, as he did at Park View. Typically, coaches who interact with their athletes on a daily basis know their equipment inside and out. So Hembach had to do additional research by talking to other area coaches for their input.
The amount of equipment ordered also varies with enrollment, even if the difference is just a hundred or so students. While basketball teams everywhere will have 12 players, teams like football and cross-country will increase according to enrollment.
"The biggest thing was definitely ordering the equipment," Carter said. "You have to sift through all these vendors to get the best price and the best quality. You also don't know your student body. There may be a kid who needs a XXL uniform that you didn't know about. The buying of the equipment was one thing that was overwhelming."
The process of selecting coaches is a tricky matter as well. The coaching staff needs to fit like puzzle pieces within the teaching staff as well. While Hembach wants coaches who embody the philosophy around which he wants to base the program, he also needs to have spots for them to teach classes.
"I wanted coaches who would encourage kids to go into several sports, especially in this age of specialization," Hembach said. "So when you interview coaches for positions, you want to hear them emphasize that sentiment. We also wanted to wait until after [each sport's] season to post the coaching openings and start interviewing. So that put a time constraint on it."
No matter how thoroughly an athletic director plans, there will be things he overlooks. And after the first time that mistake or omission is exposed, he'll be kicking himself.
"On a frequent basis, a few times a week, something would come up, and I would call Dave and remind him about that," Lutman said. "But you always miss something, no matter how much you prepare. For example, on our football field, you turn the lights on and off from the press box. Obviously, it makes sense to have that switch at the last place you'll be at--near the front gate. I remember our first game, I turned out the lights, and I was walking down the steps in complete darkness not having any idea where I was going.
"One thing I called him about a month ago was the size of the lockers in the boys locker room. They need to be big enough to accommodate the size of football equipment. And if I could magically have an extra $20,000, I would change that at our school. But at Stone Bridge, they're going to be the right size."
When all that preparation, all those purchases, hirings and designs are completed and the paint is dried, the school will not have even played a game. And when that first game is played, Stone Bridge likely will be underdogs, In fact, the entire first season likely will be tough for the school's teams.
"The people of the Stone Bridge community have to be patient," Lutman said. "They have to be supportive of the coaches. Wins aren't going to come overnight. Even as the athletic director and a parent of an athlete, I sometimes forgot that."
About This Series
Stone Bridge High School will open in August in Ashburn, debuting as the county's largest campus because of its 1,600-student capacity. Clearly, one of the more daunting tasks will be laying the foundation for the Athletic Department, then maintaining and constantly updating it. Over the next several months leading up to the school's opening, Loudoun Extra will examine what has gone into putting together that program.
Stone BridgeFast Facts
Opening: August 2000.
Projected enrollment: 1,600 (when the school has grades 9-12 for the 2001-02 school year).
Colors: Navy, Columbia blue, white.
Varsity sports: Fall season--football, cross-country, girls basketball. Winter--girls volleyball, boys basketball, wrestling, girls gymnastics, swimming. Spring--soccer, tennis, track, baseball, softball.
District: AA Northwestern.
CAPTION: Stone Bridge High School will be the second of five Loudoun County high schools opening during a 10-year period.
CAPTION: Dave Hembach was athletic director at Park View for eight years before getting the Stone Bridge job.