Commentary

America's top high school earning respect on the field

Updated: April 7, 2009, 12:05 PM ET
By Chris Preston | Special to ESPNRISE.com

The further the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology advanced in the 2007 Virginia boys high school soccer tournament, the more their victories were met with universal surprise. With an enrollment of 1,802 students, the elite 9-12 public school situated in Alexandria, Va., is dwarfed by many of the other public schools against which it competes in the Liberty District of the state's hypercompetitive Northern Region. But people weren't scoffing at Thomas Jefferson's size.

[+] EnlargeThomas Jefferson Soccer
Rob BeckmanThomas Jefferson's boys soccer team surprised everyone by bringing home a state championship in 2007.

"The size doesn't play into it as much as the fact that we are the Science and Technology governor's school," insists Justin Etkin, a senior at Thomas Jefferson who started on that '07 championship team. "All season in 2007, teams came to TJ expecting to kill us because we're the nerds. Even up until the championship game, we were underdogs."

The playing surface is the only venue where Thomas Jefferson students are considered underdogs. In December, Thomas Jefferson was named the country's top public high school by U.S. News and World Report, according to the publication's College Readiness Index (TJ was the only school to receive a perfect score of 100 in U.S. News' college readiness ratings system). Thomas Jefferson's students are among the brightest and most talented teenagers in America. TJ is comprised of students from six surrounding counties and municipalities (Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Loudoun County and Prince William County), and entry is predicated on a merit-based application process. The average SAT score among TJ students was 2214 during the 2007-08 school year, and TJ students earned passing grades on their AP exams at a 98 percent clip. The large majority of them go on to some of the premier colleges and universities in the country.

But as its boys' soccer program proved in '07, athletics at TJ are far from an afterthought. The girls' tennis team made it to the state finals last season; the boys' swimming and diving team claimed three consecutive state titles from 1995-97, and the girls' team followed suit with their own three-peat from 2002-04; the boys' cross-country squad has won three state championships this decade, with its latest crowning coming in '07; and the girls' indoor track team won back-to-back Virginia titles in '97 and '98.

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No TJ sport boasts more championships or more participants, however, than the Colonials' crew team. More than 110 students went out for crew last season. A winning tradition is likely part of the draw: The boys' varsity eight team has won the Virginia state championship 10 years running and captured the national title in '04, '06 and '07. It has qualified for the prestigious Royal Henley Regatta in England three of the last five years, reaching the quarterfinals twice. The girls' varsity eight, meanwhile, has claimed five Virginia crew titles and two national championships. Rowers of both genders have gone on to compete for the Junior National Team at the world championships.

Considering the academic demands at Thomas Jefferson -- where the days (8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.) are longer than at most high schools and the students take more AP exams than on any high school campus in the U.S. -- the success of its athletic programs is remarkable. One might assume that TJ students have precious little energy left for athletics. But the competitive drive that got them into the exclusive science- and math-oriented school in the first place benefits TJ's students in the athletic arena.

"The nature of the student-athlete here is that they are competitive," said Ed Grimm, head coach of the boys' basketball program for the past 12 years. "They compete to get into the school -- there's so many that apply and only so many that are accepted. They're highly competitive in everything that they do."

Needless to say, Thomas Jefferson students are also quick on the uptake -- a trait that makes them decidedly coachable.

"The TJ athlete is more prone to learning from mistakes and fixing problems than a kid from a regular high school," said boys' soccer coach Sean Burke, who turned the program from a .500 team to a state champion in his first year on campus. "We break down a lot of film. They even take it home and look at it. They're very prideful in what they do."

JBumper Sticker
Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson parents have been seen sporting these bumper stickers.

Girls' tennis coach Jennifer Pierce marvels at the focus her players are able to maintain despite TJ's academic grind pulling them in countless directions.

"In a world full of academic pressure, these girls still find a way to come out to the courts, work hard every day, and have fun achieving a level of success far beyond anyone's expectations," Pierce said.

Thomas Jefferson's director of student activities, Melody Modell, estimates that about half the student body participates in at least one sport -- evidence that TJ students aren't so overwhelmed by school that they shy away from adding a sport to their already busy schedules. In fact, many TJ students juggle several extracurriculars. The drama program and school band are among TJ's other popular after-school activities. That directly follows the vision Thomas Jefferson administrators had more than 20 years ago when they elected to revamp its identity as a public school welcome to all teens from the surrounding Fairfax County neighborhoods to a selective, merit-based institution whose tentacles extend into other parts of Northern Virginia. Those administrators made a conscious decision to remain a full-service high school despite its "Science and Technology" moniker. Like most high schools, TJ wanted to retain its athletic ambitions.

Thomas Jefferson athletes admit that balancing sports and academics at such a demanding school can feel like walking a tightrope. "Sometimes there are those nights when you're up late doing work and not getting as much rest as you should before a game," said Kiara Savage, starting point guard on the girls' basketball team.

But every TJ student interviewed for this story insisted that it is doable.

"I've actually never had a problem with it," said Brian Murphy, Etkin's fellow senior captain on the boys' soccer team. "We practice in the morning. School doesn't start until 8:30 so we'll meet at 6:30 at a local turf field. It's definitely unique. I don't know anyone else in the area that does that."

Says Spencer de Mars, a second team All-Liberty District player on Thomas Jefferson's boys' basketball team: "Time management is definitely the key. When you're playing a sport, you can't procrastinate the same way that maybe you would otherwise. You really have to plan out your homework a few weeks ahead of time. I was able to balance it well because basketball helped me focus more on my homework afterward."

[+] Enlargefans
Liz RossThink smart people don't go nuts for their teams? Think again.

It helps that de Mars is a member of the National Honor Society who earned a perfect score on his SATs and recently committed to play basketball at Harvard (he also got into MIT). Most 15- to 18-year-olds likely would struggle to strike a balance between playing a sport and handling the workload that comes with attending the top-rated high school in the country. Not TJ students. That's why they were admitted to Thomas Jefferson in the first place.

Of course, conflicts do arise -- more than at most high schools. Because their academic commitments are often so varied and time-consuming, TJ's student-athletes may have to skip the occasional practice or miss a team meeting. But Colonials girls' basketball and lacrosse coach Victor Chen realizes such conflicts are a minor concession.

"If you really look at the overall scope of what we as coaches are supposed to accomplish, you can view [TJ's academic demands] as an advantage," said Chen, who just completed his first season as the girls' hoops coach and is entering his fourth as girls' lacrosse coach. "From a coaching perspective, you would like to have everybody there, but you really understand what the primary objective of a TJ student is. Can it be frustrating? Sure. I've coached lacrosse around the Northern Region [of Virginia] and you don't get as many people missing practices. If a kid misses a practice [at another school] it's either because they're sick or it's not convenient for them. Here, if they don't make a practice it's because they're off doing great things -- internships, playing a musical instrument, things that are going to perfect their lives. It's not because they're not committed. They're committed, but they're also committed to the other things they do."

In fact, Thomas Jefferson students are so committed and such quick studies on the field or court that it makes up for some of the practice time they might miss. It also helps them play catch-up once they start their Colonial athletic careers. After all, many TJ students are participating in an organized sport for the first time when they decide to go out for the freshman or JV team. Because Thomas Jefferson is entirely admissions-based and encompasses such a large area, with students migrating from as far as 45 minutes to an hour away from campus on a daily basis, it does not have ties to any feeder programs.

"Other schools can reach down into the seventh and eighth grade level and be preparing some people in youth sports [in grades] even lower than that," said Grimm. "We don't have that luxury here."

That Thomas Jefferson still prospers athletically is a testament, then, to the collective will of its student-athletes. No school that has claimed state titles in seven different sports over the last 12 years can be accurately termed an athletic weakling.

But because it is renowned for its academics first, any success TJ achieves in the athletic realm is deemed a surprise. To Etkin, that made capturing the school's first soccer title even sweeter.

"I like the fact that the nerds won," he said.

Chris Preston is an editor for the Northeast Sports Network and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at cpreston@northeastsportsnetwork.com.