George Mason High Harriers Unfazed by Long Bus Rides

Northern Virginia is littered with high schools, and most are gigantic. George Mason High School is not. With fewer than 650 students in four grades, it is dwarfed by nearby George Marshall, McLean, Falls Church and Yorktown high schools.

But like a sapling under a forest canopy, the Mustang cross country teams have thrived, stretching their roots far away to find the competition that matches their size. Even if that means racking up miles on the bus.

The harriers are dismissed a few hours early for their cross country and track meets, allowing for more than an hour of travel time to reach each dual meet. They all live within the city of Falls Church, a 2.2-square-mile enclave surrounded by Fairfax and Arlington counties. Though many surrounding neighborhoods bear the Falls Church postal address, few fall within the city limits. The high school itself is in Fairfax County, and if anyone claimed it as a residence, their kids would attend McLean High, 2.5 miles away.

It’s a single A school, the smallest division in Virginia, comprising the smallest third of schools in the Virginia High School League. George Mason only has one district opponent, Manassas Park, that’s within a half-hour’s driving distance. The others – Strasburg, Clarke County, Central (Woodstock), William Monroe (Standardville), Madison County, and Rappahannock County – are all well over an hour away.

That means a lot of time on the bus. There’s no snickering or gabbing on the trips, either. Head Coach Alisa Harvey enforces quiet hours so students can work on homework. They might as well, because the quality of the school system (ranked 45th in 2012 among the best schools in america by Newsweek) is the reason they’re in this situation.

In 1949, as the city of Falls Church’s population tripled following World War II, raised taxes to improve their school system. Citizens were upset at paying 2.65 cents off the dollar in taxes to Fairfax County and not having it go towards better schools. The city successfully petitioned the state in 1949 to be independent of Fairfax so it could establish its own school system.

“I don’t think in 1949, we could have foreseen that our athletes would be taking 2-hour bus rides. It has always been that way,” said school spokesman John Brett.

Athletic Director Tom Horn doesn’t see the travel quandary as difficult.

“I don’t know if it’s a response so much as a learned behavior,” he said. “It’s what we’ve been doing for … years. Our district placement says we’re going to compete against the seven smallest schools and they just happen to be several miles away.”

Additionally, the school has no home course. According to Horn, the department looked into a home course ten years ago, but found that the school’s small campus wasn’t suitable. They had to run multiple loops and stop traffic from entering the campus at several entrances.

“If your ‘home course’ isn’t on campus, and it isn’t where you practice every day, then it isn’t really a ‘home’ course,” Horn said “So we decided we could do better by not having one. We certainly didn’t want to bus our kids to a ‘home course’ for practice every day” adding that they already spend enough time on a bus.

At the same time, Horn feels that there is an added advantage to constant away trips.

“One advantage to our current schedule is we don’t want them travelling two hours and running a cross-country meet for the first time when they hit postseason,” Horn said.

“They already have had practice running after lengthy bus trips, and have run on the regional and state courses before running on them for those meets.”

And the postseason has been good to the Mustangs, with four state titles for the girls and one for the boys.

“I mean, sometimes I think it would be nice to not have that travel schedule,” said Mustang captain and senior Jesse Schaffer. “But we wouldn’t have all those other advantages of running in a small school.”

Assistant coach Matt Kirk and Harvey try to use those challenges to instill their kids with responsibility.

“Alisa and I constantly talk to the team about time management and making the best use of time in school and time after school,” he said. “New runners might complain a little bit about the travel time, but the team quickly adapts to the demands and does a fairly decent job of managing academic and athletic demands.”

According to senior Jesse Shaffer, the ride over to the meets is fairly uneventful, but the bus gets a little livelier on the way back, especially if they win.

“Especially last year at states when both the guys and boys won,” said Shaffer. “We really were feeling great and happy for each other.”

Shaffer says that the team bonds together but he doesn’t think it’s because of the long bus rides or the unique circumstances.

“I just think it’s a great group of people and we’re really happy for each other and encourage one another to do well, and that would be the case either way.”

Shaffer’s favorite tradition is the seniors leading the team into a song when the bus arrives back at George Mason and is pulling into the parking lot.

“I’m not sure why we do it,” said Shaffer. “One of the reasons is I think it wakes up anyone who fell asleep.”


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