Sixth in a series.

Kelly Haller and Rusty Smith are two of the 110 senior athletes returning to Heritage in the fall who will have the distinction of being part of the school's first four-year class. Both have excelled individually -- Haller as a second-team All-Met catcher and member of the Pride's volleyball team, and Smith as a standout on Heritage's boys' basketball and baseball teams.

They, like many others at the school, participated in varsity athletics as freshmen. That's the price of playing at a new high school, a notion familiar to many in the growing Loudoun County community.

Both Haller and Smith said without hesitation that they are happy to have been part of establishing the traditions that will be the foundation of the Pride's athletic teams -- even if the cost of such growing pains was limited success on the field or court.

"Of course it's frustrating sometimes when maybe you don't win as many games as you'd like," Haller said. "But I've definitely felt a connection with the school and the people in it. And to see the growth in all of our programs from three years ago to now, to see how the programs have matured, has been tremendous. There are more people coming to games and showing so much more school spirit. Plus, there's been more wins, too. And we're expecting even more next year."

Optimism is apparent throughout the Pride's athletics department. Smith, for one, not only echoed Haller's sentiments but said he also looks forward to returning to Heritage to enjoy the successes of classes behind him.

"Hopefully we'll get our first district championship this year so we can actually be a part of it instead of just knowing we helped set it up," Smith said. "That's the goal. And I think it's a realistic one. There are so many of us who have gotten to play against the top competition in the district all four years, and in the long run I think it's helped make us better players."

The Pride has yet to capture a Dulles District regular season title in any team sport, though its golf team, led by Greg Brouse, won the district tournament championship last fall. Heritage has also had several other individual standouts, including Les Bradley, the Virginia AA champion in the 110-meter hurdles in 2005, and the 4x400 relay team of Behsad Hewadpal, Dale Taylor, Brandon Alonzo-Jones and William Bray that captured the Region II title in 2004. Bryan Durazo finished as the state runner-up in the 100-meter breaststroke in 2005, and guard Stephen Nichols earned all-state and district player of the year honors for basketball in 2003-04.

But while Athletic Director Ron Petrella proudly recalls each of those accomplishments, he said they are only one way he measures his department's achievements.

"The whole school has really grown up, and a lot of it has revolved around athletics," Petrella said. "We're very proud of that. But there's so much more to our athletes. They've become involved throughout the school. Eighty percent of our elected class officers for student government are athletes. And at our awards ceremony this spring, our athletes represented 68 percent of all the straight-A students at Heritage.

"With these kids, finally, now a tradition is in place."

Heritage High standouts Rusty Smith and Kelly Haller are entering their fourth year of varsity sports at the school.