School nurtures `excellence'

River Hill houses champions in, out of class

December 07, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The banners hanging in the gym at River Hill High School say it all: Since opening in 1996, the Columbia school has earned 25 state championships in sports including cross country, soccer and basketball. It has collected 50 regional championships and 68 county championships.

But even by the already high standards of athletic success set by River Hill athletes in previous years, this fall has been a season for the record books.

The school has collected four state championships, for boys and girls soccer, and boys and girls cross-country; and six regional championships, for all of the above, plus football and volleyball.

And tomorrow, the Hawks' top--ranked football team (13-0) hopes to earn its first state title when it plays sixth-ranked Eastern Tech (13-0) at 3:30 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in the Class 2A championship.

"We're having a pretty good fall," said the school's athletic and activities manager, Rick Lloyd, as he leaned back in a chair, delivering what most people would consider a wild understatement.

Senior Zach Martin, the team's exceptional running back and linebacker, said a victory in tomorrow's game would be a terrific way to end his three-year varsity career. The Hawks, who lost 37-18 to Friendly High in last season's Class 3A state championship, have tied the state record this season with 11 shutouts. They have allowed only 14 points.

Will they prevail tomorrow? "We sure hope to," said Martin, who has been held out of practice this week because of a sprained ankle he suffered the first half of last weekend's semifinal win over Elkton High of Cecil County.

But the pressure is on, he said, because football is the last fall sport on the schedule. With so many River Hill teams taking home state championships this year, Martin, who said he hopes to practice today, said the bar has been raised.

"Hopefully we can end the fall season in the right way," said junior Patrick McCleaf, the team's offensive lineman and linebacker.

River Hill is no stranger to success. Students at the school seem to shine in just about everything they do, whether it's on the athletic fields, in the classrooms or on a stage.

"It's a unique school," said Lloyd. "The three A's - academics, athletics and the arts. The kids here excel in all three areas."

Because of its excellent test scores, the school is one of only 40 nationwide that has been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School. "There's a culture here of high expectations," Lloyd said.

Lloyd said the only secret to the success of the athletic teams is hard work and good coaching. "I wish I could bottle it," he said.

But one thing that has helped is the school's reclassification, from 3A to 2A, in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. The change, caused by a drop in population, means River Hill has gone from being one of the smaller schools in the old division to one of the larger ones in the new division, noted Lloyd. "We're now one of the larger 2A teams," he said.

Lloyd, who joined the school as a football and baseball coach when it first opened, said the school's first principal, Scott Pfeifer, now at the helm of Centennial High School, deserves credit for getting the school off to a good start, hiring many of the coaches who are still working wonders with the students today.

"We have very little turnover in our coaching staff," said Lloyd. "We have been able to hire good coaches and retain them."

For his part, Pfeifer laughed off the idea that he is responsible for River Hill's wins, though he noted that hiring the best coaches he could find was a priority for him.

"When you're opening a new school, there are many areas that you have to focus on," he said. "You've got to be thoughtful about extracurriculars." Other principals opening new schools do the same thing, he added.

Many of the coaches at River Hill have been there since the beginning, including Earl Lauer, who coached both the boys and girls cross country teams to state championships this year.

"From Aug. 15 [the start of the season], we knew what we wanted to do," said Lauer, who also coached the school's wrestling team before he retired from teaching in the spring of 2006. "Our goal every year is to finish in the top five, and we generally do it."

Enthusiasm and support for the school's athletic program always has been high, but it might be even higher than usual this year.

"The energy's always there," said Lauer. Games have been particularly well attended, noted Lloyd, which is good for the school coffers because booster clubs raise money through concession sales.

Lauer noted that creating a strong sports franchise at a high school is a good way to generate a sense of school community. And that feeling pays off when former students return to the school as teachers and coaches, he noted. Lauer's son, Brandon, who was a student and champion wrestler at River Hill, teaches physical education at the Clarksville school and replaced his father as wrestling coach.

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