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Posted August 14, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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From the ground up: Cannons coaches, officials cope with many challenges of starting from scratch

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

Members of Lord Fairfax's girls soccer team
Members of Lord Fairfax's girls soccer team pose. Seated from left, Karson Scates, Rachel Harr and Broooke Mort. Standing from left, Tracey Casarella and coach Kathleen Carey. Rich Cooley/Daily

Dave Urso shows off the school's new soccer uniforms
Dave Urso, coordinator of student life at Lord Fairfax, shows off the school's new soccer uniforms. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Jeremy Stafford -- jstafford@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- The heat is stifling.

The already dry August air, further incubated inside the walls of a two-door storage shed at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, nearly suffocates the lungs.

Dave Urso doesn't complain: He's used to the structure's smothering, strangling atmosphere.

Quietly, Urso drags one of several large, plastic containers to his feet, removes the lid, and draws out a stringy white and blue jersey.

"Lord Fairfax Lady Cannons" is splashed across the chest of the jersey, which has been neither worn in a game, nor wetted with sweat.

"Yeah, they're done -- they're ready," said Urso of the jerseys, which will cloak the backs of each Lady Cannon when the LFCC women's basketball team makes it's debut on Nov. 6 at Patrick Henry College. "[Ordering uniforms is] something that has to be done ahead of time, because if they print the logo funny, or if they come back the wrong size, or things like that -- you have to have all that ready."

None of the uniforms Urso lifts out of the bin seem damaged or disfigured.

And so another hurdle is cleared by Urso, the Lord Fairfax coordinator of student life, as the Cannons' inaugural men's and women's basketball seasons draw nearer, and the months Urso's spent orchestrating them finally bloom into something tangible.

"It's not realistic in January to decide I'm gonna have a basketball program in November," Urso said. "If you can pull that together, you're a better team than we have here, and there aren't many better teams than what we have here.

"It takes probably 12-18 months to really have the dialogue and pull the things together and bring it to fruition."

Not to mention many schools have their schedules set nearly a year ahead of time, reason enough to throw Urso into a frenzy long before basketballs are bought, coaches are signed, and players are recruited.

But even after all the scheduling and hiring is finished, even after men's coach Chris Graham and women's coach Kathy Carey have held open gyms to assess the local interest in playing college basketball, Urso's job is far from finished.

The slop of troubles he's guided the young men's and women's soccer programs through is proof of that.

* * *

At the beginning of each school year, during student orientations, Urso and LFCC student activities coordinator Brandy Boies survey the interests of incoming students. It's Urso and Boies' job to cater to as many student interests as possible, organizing foam dances and karaoke parties, for example, when there was a high student demand for dances.

"We take a look at our student profile and what their interests are and try to gear our programs toward the current student population," explained Cynthia Bambara, who is the vice president of student success at Lord Fairfax. "And as our demographics change, we have to continually be responsive to changes in our activities program.

"Basically what we're doing ... is driven by student interest."

In 2004, though, incoming students expressed an interest in something beyond the scope of anything Urso's ever organized.

"We saw sports coming up and up again," Urso said.

Specifically, soccer seemed to be a favorite among the freshman class that year, and so Urso pitched Bambara the idea of starting a men's and women's program. Bambara reviewed the proposed athletics budget with Urso and then presented it, along with the rest of the student activities budget, to the college board.

It was soon decided that LFCC athletes would don blue and white and, because of Middletown's rich military history, would be called the Cannons.

Thus the soccer program at Lord Fairfax was born five years ago, and has since survived on a fluctuating student interest and a $30,000 budget.

Urso was named assistant coach for the men's team in 2005, under head coach Shaun Broy; John Sharples took over as the women's coach.

And even though the field behind the Middletown campus more closely resembles an ungroomed elementary school playground than a college soccer pitch, and both teams -- especially the women's -- have faced their share of growing pains, Urso has guided the athletics program steadily over the years both as coach and psuedo-athletics director, though there is no such full-time position.

Following the 2005 season, Sharples took over as men's coach, a position he maintains today, and Urso began a two-year stint as the head coach of the women.

Initially, the soccer programs found success: The men's team was far from polished but played comptetive soccer throughout the season; the women spent their first season as a five-player indoor squad at the Winchester Sportsplex, but finally generated enough interest in 2006 to field a full team.

It wasn't long, though, before the bottom fell out.

* * *

It was a question no coach should have to ask another.

"Can you play down?" Urso asked the Patrick Henry women's soccer coach in the Cannons' 2006 season finale.

The lack of player-availability had all but crippled Urso's team in his first year as coach. Over the course of the season, Urso's 15-player team wasted away to nine players, then to seven.

It was the minimum number of players allowed to take the field.

"I don't want you to play seven-on-seven because you'll wear your athletes out," Urso pleaded. "But can we play nine-on-seven, or something like that, that gives us a competitive chance?"

The Patrick Henry coach wouldn't hear it: They wanted to end their season on a high note; they wanted to play 11.

Ninety minutes later, Urso's crippled team of seven trounced Patrick Henry's complete team 4-1.

"My mantra as a coach was: We may be outplayed, we may be outskilled, but we won't be outconditioned," Urso said. "We outran that team that day and we made a statement and got a win.

"That I'll always look back and go, 'That was impressive.' And to me that said, 'We have the people who are excited enough and are gonna play, and we're gonna go somewhere with this.'"

Because for Urso, it takes the kind of team he fielded in 2006, a team with no foundation and no underlying structure, to build an entire athletics program from scratch. It takes a team of girls not afraid of being outplayed, not afraid of losing and not afraid of being embarrassed.

The recruiting of such players, though, can get complicated. Some prospective students can't get over the idea of playing for a community collge. Instead of a door to a Division II athletics program, they see LFCC as a school for scrubs and has-beens, Urso said, "not understanding transfer agreements, not understanding we have scouts at our games, not understanding how this is a springboard for lots of people."

Even when a core group of players is established, it's quite another feat to keep them together. With scheduling conflicts -- many players have full-time jobs and families -- along with academic standards and a team code of conduct, it can be tricky for a coach to field a proper team for an entire season.

An early skirmish in which players caught smoking marijuana were suspended for two games compiled even more controversy when a team then refused to play the undermanned Cannons.

"You damage the relationship [with other schools] and things like that," said Urso, speaking of the detriments of having a strict, unwavering behavior policy on a team already hard-pressed to field a full team. "But we maintained the integrity of what we said our program was about."

And while winning and being competitive is in the best interest for all teams at LFCC, Urso declared that the main focus of his athletics program is to field a dutiful team which places academics first and athletics second.

"You're going to find no more raw ambassador for your institution than the athletes, because they're out interacting with other people, they're going to other institutions, talking to other coaches, talking with other players and making a precedent," Urso said. "If our guys are out on the basketball court running their mouth, that's gonna give somebody an image of the college.

"So our expectation is to represent the college well, and not to do things that detract from that, and hurt the institution or hurt the program. But we want to have fun, too. That's what's most important."

There certainly wasn't any fun to last season, however, when the women's soccer team struggled to stay together; Urso, two years removed from coaching, ended their season halfway through.

It was likely the lowest point in the short history of LFCC athletics, and likely damaged the relationship the Cannons had with other local institutions. Because schools in the National Junior College Athletic Association -- of which LFCC is not yet a member -- are limited to a handful of non-conference games, Urso's decision to pull the Lady Cannons' season effectively weakened the non-conference schedules of the few local schools willing to play Lord Fairfax.

"What possibly could hurt your momentum quicker than pulling the plug on the season halfway through?" Urso queried. "We damage relationships with our schools. with other athletic directors, with our current athletes."

And just as the students' cries for basketball began to surge, LFCC hopes of keeping even two soccer program healthy began to dwindle.

It was going to be hell adding two more programs.

* * *

Coach Graham has a hearty chuckle, more baritone than soprano, which suggests that somewhere beneath his laugh is a young gym rat who wants nothing more than to spend his days playing basketball in some desolate gym.

Instead, Graham has settled on teaching the sport, spending only hours coaching some of the most successful teams to ever play at Daniel Morgan Middle School.

He's since taken the job at Lord Fairfax, but, perhaps fittingly, can't escape that middle school gym in Winchester.

Graham has held two open gyms at Daniel Morgan, open to anyone willing to play for the Cannons, so that he might gauge the local interest in his team.

So far, so good.

"It's been actually 100 percent different," said Graham, comparing the process of building the basketball and soccer programs. "I think basketball's just a very popular sport, and there's so much excitement about it.

"I mean, it really has been met with open arms from everyone I've talked to."

Between getting free gym time at Daniel Morgan and garnering interest from athletes as far away as Alabama and Australia, the most difficult part of Graham's job might be the adjustment from coaching teenagers part time, to the daily grind of recruiting and coaching a college team.

Graham admitted he's piqued the interest of as many as 25 local players, many of which were once local stars from Millbrook, Handley and Sherando.

Carey is having similar success in her dual role as coach of the women's basketball and soccer teams. Though she hasn't had 25 players women come out for her open gyms, she does have enough interest to clothe an entire basketball team in blue and white, and she's built the soccer team from a depleted band of athletes into a force 20-strong and growing.

"I'm really working with a large group of young ladies," Carey said. "Knowing that, if we should have an injury or schedules are too much to handle ... that there's a little give and take there."

But more important than an ability to recruit, more important than a lust for winning games, Graham and Carey, as well as Sharples, bring a visage which Urso believes is imperative in the creation of a thriving program: a desire to contribute to the success of the athletes outside of athletics.

"All three of our coaches have that as a part of what they are," Urso said. "That's kind of cool because that says 'I'm committed to the students finding success,' and what more could you want than that?

"But it has to be our message and it has to be the coach who's interpersonal and gets it on the academic side, pushing that piece and saying, "Here's how this opens those doors later.'"

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