Thursday, December 7, 2023

James Blair demo means long drives for LHS athletes

Demolition has begun at the site of the former James Blair Middle School. (Photo courtesy of WJCC Schools)
Demolition has begun at the site of the former James Blair Middle School. (Photo courtesy of WJCC Schools)

Crews have begun dismantling the former James Blair Middle School to make way for the fourth middle school.

But it’s not just abandoned classrooms that are being torn down—it’s also the building’s gym, which, as recently as spring, was alive with the energy of Lafayette High School student-athletes bounding up and down the court.

Now, LHS and Williamsburg-James City County Schools officials, in partnership with the City of Williamsburg and James City County, are piecing together a solution that will accommodate teams displaced by the construction.

And so far, current and former coaches are not happy with the result.

“It’s got a huge impact on athletics. You can’t imagine where they have slated our kids to practice,” said LHS Athletic Director Andy Linn.

According to a draft plan dated May 18, teams that previously practiced at James Blair could be traveling as far as James River Elementary School, a drive that takes upwards of 20 minutes from LHS. Bus transportation would be provided for all teams to and from the new practice locations.

Teams displaced by the demolition include JV girls volleyball, boys basketball, girls basketball, softball, baseball and field hockey.

Linn believes the new practice schedule places an unreasonable burden on student-athletes, who could be required to travel home from practices late at night.

“It’s not beneficial to the students,” he said. “The times they have them practicing, they are practicing at James River until like 6:30 or 7 p.m. Most kids come back in this direction. They aren’t going to get home at a reasonable time.”

Lafayette's basketball teams will be displaced in the winter. (Ty Hodges/WYDaily)
Lafayette’s basketball teams will be displaced in the winter. (Ty Hodges/WYDaily)

Another concern for coaches are the practice start times. The schedules available to teams at the Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex, James City County Recreation Center and James River cut close to when the dismissal bell rings at Lafayette.

Carla Brittle, James City County community centers administrator, was able to offer the school division a 2:30 to 5 p.m. slot in the JCC Recreation Center gymnasium three days a week in the fall. The team that practices there would have access to half the gym, or one full basketball court, she said.

“We don’t even get out of school until 2:20 p.m.,” said Dan Barner, who stepped down as LHS athletic director earlier this year. “You would need a jet to get there at 2:30.”

Brittle said the county needed to balance the use of recreational facilities by pass holders, school groups and partner organizations, such as the Neighborhood Basketball League.

“The gym is not as busy then. The kids can get here right after school and use it before the gym revs up for the partner group activities and people who come after work,” Brittle said. “Holding that for school use for this year, hopefully we will not see an impact on our patrons.”

Coaches could also be negatively impacted by the time constraints of the plan, Barner said, whether it’s because they don’t have enough time to prepare for practice or because they aren’t able to leave their full-time jobs before a 2:30 or 3 p.m. practice starts.

“If [a coach] wants to stay longer or decide they want to look at last night’s game before going to practice, they can’t do that because if you’re going to these places out of town, you have to take a school bus,” he said. “It’ll work out somehow, but it’s a big inconvenience.”

LHS students, parents and coaches would prefer to practice on Lafayette’s campus, but its facilities are not large enough to support all the school’s teams. Before this plan, practices were held on campus but also off-campus at James Blair, the Hornsby Middle School gym, the WISC fields and the JCC Recreation Center field.

Members of the LHS Athletics Booster Club began advocating in November 2015 for the construction of an auxiliary gym, citing the pending demolition of James Blair as an event that would increase the urgency to build more practice space.

That gym was ultimately budgeted and will be paid for using WJCC funds, city funds and JCC bond money.

WJCC spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith emphasized that the plan is only a draft and that Linn will have the final say as to which team practices where.

Linn, however, said he has more pressing matters to focus on before figuring out the new practice schedule, which predominantly affects winter sport athletes.

“That is so far down my list. I don’t have two fall coaches,” he said. “My guess is I won’t get to it before August. These next couple weeks, I have to get fall situated before I can go anywhere with the schedule.”

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