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Posted August 15, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Crunching numbers: Lord Fairfax adds two athletic programs without expanding budget

Editor's note: This is the second of two stories about Lord Fairfax Community College athletics as the school begins participating in four sports this year.

Dave Urso has directed the start of athletics
Dave Urso, coordinator of student life at Lord Fairfax Community College, has directed the start of athletics at the school. Rich Cooley/Daily

Logan Clarke, Tootie Jackson and Lord Fairfax coach Kathleen Carey
Lord Fairfax coach Kathleen Carey, standing, will help get the women's basketball program going with the help of former local high school players like Logan Clarke, left, and Tootie Jackson. Rich Cooley/Daily

Former Handley basketball player Rumeal Smith block
Former Handley basketball player Rumeal Smith, right, blocks the shot from Millbrook's Calvin Rodney on Feb. 19, 2007. Smith has attended two open gyms for Lord Fairfax's men's basketball team. Rich Cooley/Daily file

By Jeremy Stafford -- jstafford@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- It's difficult to tell whether the pair of soccer goals, chained together at their mouths, stand as a beacon for some distant soccer field at Lord Fairfax Community College, or if they were simply cast off to some vacant plot of land.

Only after trudging through a gravel parking lot next to a building, dubbed the Facilities Operation Center, past a sand volleyball pit, down a hill, over a trickling creek and up another slope to the bare crown of another hill, does one see for sure that there is a soccer field there.

There are no streets leading to the field, no parking lot for the convenience of fans; the only hints that anyone's taken the time to visit the hill are a few paths, barely worn by a tractor's tires, and an open candy wrapper not yet carried off by the August breeze.

There are four portable bleachers -- only one stands upright -- to indicate that something worth watching once took place on the field, but there are no lines marking boundaries, and the uneven field, a sprained ankle waiting to happen, is splotched with patches of dry dirt and dead grass.

"The biggest struggle with our field is water access," admitted Dave Urso, coordinator of student life at Lord Fairfax. "We can't get water up there. We don't have the well or the facilities to pump water onto the field."

A serious problem, indeed, for Urso, father of the LFCC's four-year old soccer program and newborn basketball program.

The most glaring issue brought by the lack of water access concerns the hydration of players during practices and games; but there's also the issue of watering the field, ridding it of its pimples of dirt and crabgrass.

Unfortunately for the college, there is no immediate remedy for the lack of water, and so the issue sits in the back of Urso's mind, replaced for the moment by more pressing concerns.

Charged with surveying student interest and then accommodating those interests as best he can, Urso first tinkered with the idea of starting an athletics program at LFCC in 2004, when student demand screamed for a soccer team.

As LFCC's pseudo-athletic director, Urso was allotted a $30,000 budget to start and maintain two soccer programs: one for the men, and one for women.

But the budget is hardly enough money to accommodate a program which lacks a weight room, locker rooms and a proper pitch.

Then, of course, there's the costs of travel, referees, coaches and much, much more.

As the list of costs grows, Urso's budget tightens; and with the men's and women's basketball programs debuting this fall, the budget will become suffocating.

"We know what the budget would be to fix the soccer field here," Urso said. "But you're talking 60 grand, 100 grand, 120 grand just to do some basic things: Get water up there to keep the field green.

"Well that's not effective ... but that's what you know as you build a program, and that's what you know about it going in.

* * *

In its first year, athletics stood apart from the student activities budget as it's own $30,000 line, and was funded by the Local College Board.

The board, a panel of 14 members, each representing such localities as Winchester and Clarke County, provides contributions to Lord Fairfax to support line items like educational programs and, when it was an independent entry, athletics.

The soccer teams were up and running by the fall of 2005, with Shaun Broy coaching the 11-manned men's team -- Urso was the assistant coach -- and John Sharples coaching a shorthanded women's indoor team at the Sportsplex in Winchester.

For the sake of efficiency, the athletics budget was absorbed into the student activities budget a year later, effectively shrinking that fund, which was never expanded to accommodate athletics.

That is, the athletics line item was wiped out, and Urso, to keep his soccer teams, was left to strangle his student activities budget for $30,000.

It was like shoving a 12-pound turkey into an Easy-Bake oven, and Urso had to make do.

The 2009 student activities budget for the LFCC Middletown campus sits at $86,000, leaving Urso a meager $56,000 to fund the rest of the student demands at Lord Fairfax, which a year ago included a basketball team.

To accommodate that demand, Urso was going to have to get creative with his spending.

"We were actually able to redo some things in the soccer program and add the basketball program, all still within the $30,000 budget," Urso said. "So we're operating very thin with what we have."

To spare enough money for the basketball teams, then, neither program takes overnight road trips, and if possible, the men's and women's teams travel together.

There isn't even enough money for them to stop for a bit of food on the way home.

* * *

Years ago, Urso decided that the LFCC soccer matches would be open to the public.

Better to bring in 50 spectators for free to build local team awareness, than to seat only 30 fans for $3 a person.

"Right now we want to build excitement for the program, which is more important to us than what the possible financial gain is," Urso said. "To me, it's more important to have those [additional] 20 people there watching and excited about the program than it is to generate money."

Even if there were an entrance fee, ticket sales would fail to cover even the trivial cost of referees. A soccer match requiring three referees costs upwards of $220, with $100 going to the center ref and $60 to each linesman.

Then there's the $50 for the medical trainer, who is required to be on site for every match, and the costs of balls and first-aid kits, all collected under a budget of $200.

In addition to the daily costs, there's also the small stipend for coaches --$3,000 for head coaches and $1,000 for assistant coaches -- traveling expenses and the costs of uniforms, which occasionally need replacing.

Only after those concerns are taken care of can Urso finally confront the issue of transporting water to that humdrum soccer field in Middletown.

The Middletown Fire Department couldn't help: For them to supply water even twice a week would deplete their own sources. LFCC, for a time, has taken to practicing at Sherando Park, but coughing up money just to practice can get rather expensive; further complications arise when vying for playing time between Christiendom College, which practices there, and local pick-up games.

Despite these expenses and a few cases of local disinterest, though, Urso has managed his teams quite well under his budget, and admits he's fortunate that soccer is an inexpensive sport, even though it may not be as popular a sport as baseball and football.

"In retrospect, I don't know that soccer was the ideal start, but soccer financially is a great way to start," Urso said. "Because [you have] the cost with soccer balls, nets, refs, uniforms ... and then what?

"Baseball, think of how many coaches you have on a baseball team: Even on a small team, you're going to have a pitching specialist, a hitting specialist and your manager. Football or something like that would just be excessive."

Basketball, also a rather economical sport, was the next obvious step for Urso.

Refs will cost $1,200 for the season, or $75 per ref per home game, similar to the amount paid for soccer officials. The costs for balls and uniforms, first-aid kits and athletic trainers are also similar.

But the lack of proper facilities remains a serious issue for LFCC.

Gym time at a local high school can run anywhere from $30 to $100 an hour, far too expensive for men's coach Chris Graham and women's coach Kathy Carey to run daily two-hour practices.

Throw in a three-hour game once or twice a week, and the athletics budget, already impoverished by the soccer season, could be expended inside of a month.

* * *

There is hope, though.

After exhausting his options for a practice gym in Front Royal, which would have provided a convenient trip for athletes from Winchester, Middletown and Fauquier, Urso has finally settled on a site in Winchester: Daniel Morgan Middle School.

Winchester isn't a prime location for basketball practices, as athletes from Fauquier will drive 40 minutes one way, but Daniel Morgan's cost-effectiveness, as it so often does when building a program, trumps convenience.

Graham, who coached at Daniel Morgan before taking the coaching position at LFCC, has held two open gyms this summer -- cost-free -- to assess local interest for his team.

The free gym time for practices, recorded by LFCC as a gift-in-kind, will save Urso's budget thousands, and gives him monetary flexibility when considering a permanent game site, for which he's still searching.

There's little doubt, though, that a gym in Middletown would best suit the athletics program.

"I know we have a lot of land out there, I don't have any idea what their future plans are yet, but I would hope that if we can develop a nice program and win some games and get the community behind us, then all of the sudden you can see spending the money on a facility," Graham said. "And that's where I think that'll really help grow Lord Fairfax."

And because of the excitement LFCC basketball has already generated -- about 25 former high school players attended Graham's most recent open-gym -- Graham doesn't expect the basketball teams to have the same growing-pains the soccer teams have been struggling through for the past four seasons. As such, the LFCC will charge an inexpensive admissions fee of $3, cheap enough not to be a financial burden for spectators, but expensive enough to bring in a respectable profit.

Urso has even flirted with the idea of selling season ticket packages with benefits as unique as sitting on the bench during a game, or as common as getting a free LFCC Cannons hat.

Even the recruitment of a special breed of players, those excited about building a program from scratch, is a near necessity for Urso, as team-sponsored fundraisers could help cover road trip expenses, and may even allow for a stop for dinner after a game.

Even members of the LFCC Educational Board, like Pastor Gilbert Mack, who preaches at the Mount Carmel Church in Winchester, have taken an interest in soliciting funds for Urso's burgeoning athletics program.

Mack said that he first heard Lord Fairfax was putting together an athletics program when it was presented as a project to the board, and he took the opportunity to help fund the program, having seen firsthand the opportunities Lord Fairfax has provided some members of his church.

"Lord Fairfax is an awesome opportunity and touches on persons and gives people a chance," Mack said. "One of the things that it provides is additional education, it provides career advancement and placement and improvement."

So while it's certainly unrealistic for anyone to expect a baseball field or locker room to be built within the next five years, there is some hope floating about Middletown that, some day, those facilities will come to be.

Urso knows the recruiting power that top-rate facilities add to programs -- who wouldn't want to play for a school with a state-of-the-art weight room and renovated soccer field?

For now, though, the upgrades remain a hope and a thought of what may one day come.

"We need somewhat of a batch of selfless athletes over the next year or two who are willing to play purely for the love of the game to help us kind of keep the program building and gaining some momentum," Urso said. "And then slowly we'll build those other things.

"It's unrealistic to say that there would be another building or a dramatic field upgrade in the next three to five years, but hopefully in the 10 to 15 years for this school, there are some growth plans out there that make us stronger."

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