A hearty laugh rumbled from somewhere deep within Chris Courtney as he sat behind his new desk at the soon-to-be-opened Mountain View High School in Stafford County last week. His bright orange T-shirt, which proudly displayed the school's new Wildcats logo, was soaked through from too many hours spent in the sun trying to solve an irrigation problem on the football field.
"A lot of people think I'm foolish for doing this again," Courtney said, leaning back in his chair. "And I'm beginning to wonder myself."
Courtney, the assistant principal for activities and athletics at Mountain View, is one of six athletic directors at new Washington area public high schools who is working feverishly to have sports programs ready in time for the beginning of the school year. It's a process that involves countless obstacles and costs between $500,000 and $600,000 per school. It also is a challenge faced by many in recent years because of the area's growing population -- six other new schools opened last fall -- and one with which Courtney is very familiar.
He also founded the athletic program at Brooke Point High in Stafford when that school opened in 1993.
"His knowledge of starting a program has, without question, been the greatest asset," Mountain View Principal James Stemple said. "You've got to hire good people around you. Then, you just get out of the way."
Courtney and Stemple are longtime friends, having worked together at two previous high schools. They share Virginia Tech football season tickets and even decided on Mountain View's orange-and-maroon color combination while traveling down Interstate 81 last fall on a trip to Blacksburg, where Courtney played from 1970 to 1974. Still, it wasn't their connection alone that drew Courtney to Mountain View.
"I just can't deny how exciting it is," Courtney said. "It re-energizes me. This is what I love to do -- connect with the athletes and the community. It's a challenge that I couldn't pass up. You learn something new every day with this job. There are always new challenges. You may come in with a to-do list that's a mile long at the start of the day, but you're lucky if you get to cross number one off your list. Other things are just always popping up."
As a new school is built, athletic directors often have little say with regard to the school building or to the placement and space allotted for the athletic fields and locker rooms. But it is their job to decide on the dozens of other practical and logistical concerns that arise as fields are constructed. Decisions have to be made about when to plant grass, for example, as well as what kind of grass is most conducive for the various sports and how the fields will be irrigated. They also must decide how large they want their scoreboards and bleachers and where best to build a concession stand or put the long- and triple-jump pits in relation to a new track.
And none of it is an exact science.
Courtney realized only recently that the ticket booth at the Wildcats' football stadium sits near the south end zone, but the path to the stadium, which is not enclosed by a fence, runs past the school building directly to the east stands. That means fans would be able to go straight to the bleachers without ever having to cross the ticket booth entrance.
"Clearly, that's something we have to have resolved before the first home game" on Sept. 9, Courtney said. "But we're going to have to find a temporary fix because any building over 10-by-10 [square feet] has to be approved by the county and costs, probably, somewhere in the high five-figures. But eventually, we'll have to get a ticket booth at the gate and we'll have to get it under [a] roof."
The outdoor facilities are just the beginning. Some schools will start with varsity programs in every sport (Mountain View and South County in Fairfax), while others will field only junior varsity teams (Marriotts Ridge in Howard County and North Point in Charles County). At Briar Woods and Freedom of South Riding, both in Loudoun County, some sports will start with a varsity team, while others won't. But no matter the level of competition, athletic directors say the biggest challenge they face is ordering equipment and uniforms.
In much the same way that counties across the region have begun recycling architecture plans for new schools in their jurisdictions, there is a blueprint for success in building athletic programs that has been shared among the region's athletic directors. Ken Hovet, athletic director at Marriotts Ridge, said he did not hesitate in seeking advice from his counterpart at Reservoir High, which opened for the 2002-03 school year.
"It's the same principle with copying building plans for the schools," Hovet said. "Then they already know how many desks they need and how many tables and where it all goes. So we rely on what other people have done instead of trying to reinvent the wheel."
Still, individual coaches have personal preferences, particularly when it comes to practice equipment and uniforms. Some athletic directors give the coaches a say -- if equipment orders can wait until the coaches are hired.
There also is the issue of where to put all of the gear when it does arrive, since the school buildings are often in disarray -- and even still under construction -- until just before the school year begins. Bulky items such as basketball hoops, batting cages and wrestling mats must be put somewhere. At Mountain View, the maroon wrestling mats still lie in the middle of the cafeteria floor because they need a week to cure on each side and the gym floors are not yet complete.
Then there are the hundreds of little items such as balls (and the needles to inflate them), nuts and bolts to secure helmets and, of course, uniforms.
"The organization of it all is the hardest, because it's quite a lot to handle in a short period of time," Hovet said. "You're so worried about getting the building ready so the athletes can actually get into the building, but at the same time the equipment and uniforms have to be accounted for.
"The list goes on and on. I liken it to one of those reality shows where they're opening a new restaurant or something and it looks like a mess two days before it opens because one delivery piles up on the next. That's what it feels like here. But they pull it all together on opening night, and that's certainly what we're hoping for."
Through it all, there also is the substantial hurdle of assembling a full coaching staff. It's a task that many administrators said they found the most rewarding -- but veterans also admit it's getting to be harder and harder. The recent opening of so many schools in the region has thinned the coaching pool, they say. And that's something that not only affects the new schools but also has a direct impact on older schools, which tend to lose coaches to the lure of a new building with advanced technology that a sparkling new facility has to offer.
Stone Bridge Athletic Director Dave Hembach, who launched the Bulldogs' program when it opened in Loudoun County in 2000, said things have gotten tougher as the years have passed. Since 1998, Loudoun County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, has gone from having four public high schools to 10.
"I really enjoyed hiring the coaches, that was the fun part," Hembach said. "But back then we were only the second new school out here in a number of years, so it was pretty exciting and there were a lot of choices. Now I think it's getting harder. In our county alone there are two more new schools competing for coaches. I said often a couple years ago that it would be fun to do it again and open another new school, but now I'm content to stay here."
Others, like Courtney, feel differently.
"There is something down the road that is so rewarding," Courtney said. "It just takes time and effort to get there."