In the spring of 1998, Leesburg Christian School had finalized plans to build a gymnasium for its volleyball and basketball teams. However, a former student set fire to the main building of the Loudoun County school in June of that year, causing more than $300,000 in damage.
With a flick of an arsonist's cigarette lighter, the school's wait for a gym was extended indefinitely. Vito A. Pagnato, 21, pleaded guilty to arson charges on Sept. 9, 1998, and is serving a five-year prison sentence for the crime.
So the volleyball team has had to continue playing its home matches outdoors on a grassy court next to double-wide trailers that house kindergarten through 12th-grade students in temporary classrooms. The absence of a gym also has made it difficult for Leesburg Christian to lure new students as it struggles to stabilize enrollment. The school's graduating classes have dwindled in number from 45 in 1998 to 35 last year to 15 seniors this school year.
"It's very hard," Coach Laura Baird said of the low enrollment, which has the trickle-down effect of low turnout for the volleyball team and forces her to use younger players. Her daughter, outside hitter Robyn Baird, is in the seventh grade. "The young kids have to be tough. They have to be mentally tough with the coach getting on them like they are high school kids."
Robyn Baird, who stands 5 feet 4, is undeterred.
She said she sometimes gets "nervous because usually I am the smallest player on the court. But I try to get over that and just do the best I can and put it out of my mind."
That attitude, said Laura Baird, is a philosophy the players have been forced to adopt not just for volleyball, but for life.
"We've played in winds that have blown serves back over the net," she said. ". . . Nothing develops faith like hard times. These girls come back from losses 10 minutes after the match, and that only comes from having a strong faith."
The court area offers views of uncompromising beauty, overlooking rolling meadows, and--on a nice day--concludes an afternoon of volleyball with a glorious sunset. Home-field advantage? For Leesburg Christian, that means adjusting to the wind and choosing the side of the court with their backs to the sun. The Lions (5-7) have played four home matches this season, the last of which was Tuesday's loss in three games to Rosedale.
"It's gorgeous. I love it," said Jerry Evans, the official for Tuesday's match. "Volleyball was designed to be played outdoors."
A new school building with a gym attached is scheduled to open next fall. But the outdoor court has become a special place, a mixing ground of different ages for Leesburg Christian. Sophomore Sheree Zarou is in her fifth year on the team, playing varsity volleyball since the sixth grade.
"I didn't play too much that year," Zarou said. "All the varsity teams had these huge girls, and they would spike it real hard at me."
Though the young players may struggle at first, Baird said the experience pays off as they get older.
"We hang on to them when they are young and they are real strong because of it," she said. "It surprises some people by how young this team is, but we work with what we have."
Baird stood on a porch attached to one of the trailers that overlooks the volleyball court, situated roughly 100 feet from Evergreen Mills Road, watching the sunset and getting a little misty-eyed thinking of the final match.
"It's beautiful," she said. "I don't know of a school anywhere that has a view like this."