Two massive construction projects go on side by side at Archbishop Spalding High School, and nobody can quite decide which is more demanding.
One -- building a new athletic facility -- requires several million dollars, heavy equipment and dozens of workers. The other -- building a winning football team -- requires intensive recruiting and hundreds of hours of weightlifting.
The success of both will go a long way toward determining the future of Spalding athletics.
Spalding is already an athletic powerhouse, and its two construction projects put it at the brink of perfection. The athletic complex -- a 1,000-seat gym, a state-of-the-art weight room and several playing fields built on 22 acres -- is expected to attract some top athletes. A winning football team would give Spalding one of the state's most complete athletic departments.
"We're trying to take things to another level," Spalding Athletic Director Lee Dove said. "If everything goes as planned, our athletics could get a real boost."
Spalding broke ground on the athletic complex earlier this month, the start to a construction project years in the making. In December 2002, the school purchased 22 acres of adjacent land, once used for farming, for about $2 million.
Almost immediately, it hired architects to craft a dream building. What they wrought was a $5 million luxury gymnasium complex: a deluxe weight room, eight new classrooms, a gym big enough to seat the entire student body and a separate locker room for every athletic team. Spalding displayed drawings of the plans in school hallways for more than a year, a reminder of a promise unfulfilled.
Bogged down by expensive steel costs and building permits, Spalding couldn't start construction for nearly two years after it bought the land. "It's been a long time coming," Dove said. "But now that it's finally being built, people are getting excited."
And there's much to get excited about. For Spalding's girls' sports, the facility promises locker rooms twice as big as the current ones. For its boys' basketball team, it promises more fans and an even better home court advantage. "We can't fit everyone into the gym right now," said boys' basketball coach Mike Glick, whose team hopes to play in the new gym for the 2005-06 season. "It'll be great to have a place where all the students can watch a game."
But can the new facility boost Spalding football, the sport that needs help the most?
While most of Spalding's teams play in either the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A or B Conference, the football team plays in the C Conference, which is reserved for the weakest teams. And it was a C Conference doormat for several years, until Mike Whittles, the head coach, vowed to turn the program around.
"I just sort of said, 'This isn't going to happen anymore,' " Whittles said. "We got sick of people expecting to walk all over Spalding. We weren't going to let that happen anymore."
Whittles remodeled his program in 2003. He set up a demanding summer weightlifting program and started running clinics to draw middle schoolers into the Cavaliers' program. A losing team became a competitive one.
Spalding finished 8-2 last season, its best record in almost a decade. After a 20-19 loss last weekend to John Carroll, the Cavaliers are 5-2 this year. And Whittles said things will get even better: He thinks the new gym -- particularly the weight room and medical training room -- will attract top talent to Spalding immediately.
Success has made the football coaches so optimistic that, after this season, they plan to petition the MIAA to move into the B Conference. "We've charted a path and we'll keep moving," wide receiver Chase Sturn said. "This program is headed for big things. It just takes a lot of work to get there."
For now, Spalding is still the team that sputters one play from a key touchdown, one possession from a big win. Against John Carroll, the Cavaliers were crippled by growing pains.
Sustained patches of good play were interrupted by mistakes.
Sturn broke free for a beautiful 40-yard touchdown reception; the snap on the ensuing extra point flew four feet over the holder's head.
Another time, the Cavaliers marched 90 yards down the field, eating up seven minutes of the second quarter; the drive ended with an interception on first-and-goal from the 5-yard line.
With several hundred students on hand at Spalding to celebrate homecoming, to celebrate the arrival of a competitive football team, the Cavaliers lost on the game's final play. Leading by five points, Spalding gave up a 5-yard rushing touchdown with four seconds left.
"We're always so close," Whittles said. "The thing that separates us right now from getting these wins is almost nothing. It's almost nothing.
"I've got no doubt in my mind that we're going to become the team that wins these games. That's where our program is headed. I know where we're going in my mind. But the thing is, you've got to execute."
That's the way it always goes with construction projects: Plans are easily made. The hardest part is building.