To say our school’s athletic program is big is an understatement. The program boasts 31 varsity sports, spanning the fall, winter and spring seasons. Last spring, nearly 400 students participated in the eight spring sports, accounting for almost 20 percent of the school’s enrollment, and outdoor track and field alone had almost 200 athletes. Undeniably, athletics play an integral part in the lives of the majority of students and faculty in the school.
“There’s something about playing for your school in front of your friends,” athletic director Chris Thompson said. “Here, you’re under the lights, in front of friends and family, and it’s a bigger experience and having ‘Wootton’ across your chest represents maybe more than other things.”
Despite the widespread participation in athletics, students and faculty agree that our school should not be known as a “sports school” but rather for its stellar academics. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as our school consistently ranks among the top high schools in the state and the nation by academic standards. After all, the academic performance of our students is one of the main attractors to the area.
If our school isn’t a sports school and the focus is primarily on academics, then can our athletic program still be successful? To find that answer, our athletic program is put to the test by three criteria essential to a successful athletic program: winning, opportunity and culture.
Wins and Losses
As far as wins and losses go, the greatest achievement in high school sports is the state championships. By that metric, our athletic program has fallen behind others in the county. Northwest and Quince Orchard have put teams in the football state championship, and Walter Johnson won titles in both boys’ and girls’ soccer this fall.
“I think a really successful athletic program should be consistently competing for championships,” indoor track coach and technology teacher Matthew Davis said.
Though our school hasn’t won a state championship in a team sport since boys’ soccer in 2012, in the 2015-16 school year three athletes -alumnus Delaney Shah in golf and junior Joseph Brailovsky and senior Miranda Deng in tennis- won individual state titles. But due to the lack of recent success of the football team, the premier high school sport nationwide, a significant portion of students perceive the athletic program as falling short of expectations.
No sport says high school sports like football. “Lacrosse has grown a lot, soccer is still growing, but football rules the fall and basketball rules the winter,” Thompson said. “Do what you may do, but it’s going to be like that for a while. In my mind, every sport’s equal… but the fact remains on a Friday night when there’s a game everybody’s going to come. If it was home something else, it would still be a big crowd no matter what, but football is king, no doubt.”
For the football team, wins have been few and far between. The team has held a winning record twice in the last 25 years, with the last winning season coming in 2008.
Optimism runs rampant every year, but the football team is in position to push back into winning territory the next couple years. Nine new players were established starters on offense, including All-County wide receiver sophomore Noelly Miller, honorable mention junior Elijah Trent and honorable mention quarterback junior Grant Saylor, so the core of this team will stay intact the next couple years.
“To be honest, a lot of teams around the county are scared of what we have coming back,” football head coach Eddie Tolliver said. “They’re really impressed with what we do, especially with the small numbers we have.”
Narrowing the view of the athletic program down to just football would be overlooking the widespread successes of other sports. Notably, the girls’ tennis team won its fourth straight county championship this fall. Additionally, two returning players on this year’s tennis teams, Deng and Brailovsky, have individual state titles.
Soccer is the most recent team to win a state title and both the boys’ and girls’ teams routinely make deep playoff runs. Cross country has reached new heights by winning its first county title last year and the girls’ team placed second at states this season, highest in school history. Golf recently graduated a four-time state champion in Delaney Shah. Handball finished undefeated and won the county championship. The list of recent accomplishments goes on and on.
Of course, teams can’t win if they don’t have the chance or tools necessary to win. One of the areas in which the athletic program really excels is the variety of options it gives student-athletes and the tools it supplies for them to succeed, whether on the field, court or track.
With 31 sports, students have a wide range of opportunities to participate in athletics, from football and soccer, to swim and dive and handball.
“It gives everybody an opportunity to try something new or to do what they already like,” senior Connor Lawrence, who has participated in four sports and tried out for a fifth, said.
To aid the development of athletes, this school’s sports teams utilize a combination of junior varsity teams and conditioning. For younger, less experienced athletes, the 11 JV teams serve as a beneficial and instructional alternative to the varsity, giving athletes action but with lower stakes and lesser competition. Training for the majority of sports teams extend beyond just their seasons, as teams hold conditioning during the offseason, including some over the summer.
The athletic program expands beyond the typical high school sports and has two corollary sports teams- handball in the fall and bocce in the winter. These teams are coed and aimed at introducing students with accommodations to high school athletics. So far, the teams have been successful, both in their winning ways (handball finished with an undefeated record and county championship) and in providing interaction and opportunity.
“I got to meet and play against kids where I wouldn’t have met them if I hadn’t played handball,” sophomore Liam Hall, a former handball player and current member of JV basketball, said. “It broadens your horizons and who you know.”
Student-athletes at this school don’t only benefit from an excellent education in the classroom, but also a top-notch education in their chosen sport. The athletic program provides for athletes passionate, knowledgeable, experienced and decorated coaches for their teams. Most of the coaches stay at their position for years, giving continuity to the teams.
With a turf field, renovated baseball field and remade tennis court, student-athletes have new, modern playing fields at their disposal. As expected with a school as old as ours, some of the practice facilities are outdated, so coaches have needed to be creative in training their student-athletes. The school is set to be rebuilt in 2020, so all new projects with the building are put on hold until then.
This year, with the aid of the school and the booster club, the athletic department added a full-time athletic trainer, Patrick Darnley. The hire has benefited athletes from almost every sport and provided students much-needed assistance in dealing with injury and getting and staying on the field.
To be successful, teams must function as a unit and consistently put in hard work to achieve a common goal. Each team has a different culture, ranging from encouraging to gritty and tense, but members of the each team share a sense of unity rarely found outside of the athletic sphere.
“Everyone on the team is like brothers,” sophomore football player Ralin “31 Savage” Lewis said. “We all have fun, we have each other’s backs.”
“Everyone is so friendly,” freshman Alyssa D’Arpa, a member of the cross country team, said. “I was expecting it would be scary and no one would talk to me, but people come up and talk to you and know who you are.”
In addition to creating team environments, one of the roles of high school athletics is fostering school spirit. Though some sports such as football and ice hockey draw out huge crowds, most students agree that school spirit could be improved.“School spirit plays a lot into [a successful athletic department],” Hall said. “If we get more people to the games and there’s more spirit and more of an environment, teams will be more able to win.”
The future looks strong for Patriot athletics, with teams such as football and cross country trending up and a school renovation on the horizon. But assuming the current state of the athletic program is anything short of stellar is a mistake. Our athletic program should be considered one of the best in the county and certainly provides students with the ability to excel in their sport, in addition to the classroom.
“Because we haven’t had a lot of success and football and basketball, I think that many people, including our own students, view our athletic program as not being successful, as not being good,” Thompson said. “But in reality, you look at all the sports combined and we are really good. Across the board, we were one of the top schools in athletics. Combine that with being one of the top schools and academics, it’s a win-win. It’s a great place to be.”