Program of Year: Jamestown rides exceptional athletes, coaching to the top

Contact Reportermobrien@dailypress.com

There are plenty of measurements that explain Jamestown High's return to Daily Press Athletic Program of the Year for the first time since 2010-11, from a team standpoint and individually.

You can start with the girls swim team's Group 4A state title and five other top-three finishes in Virginia High School League competition, then add the girls lacrosse team's dramatic state club championship victory. Individual stars included six Eagles named Daily Press Athletes of the Year in their sports and two who missed that designation by a whisker.

But some of the things that made Jamestown special can't be measured, like the legion of students wearing "Gang Green" t-shirts and creating electricity at numerous sporting events. One of their signature cheers was "I believe that we can win!"

Jamestown athletes confirmed that belief by winning in the fall, winter and spring. The girls volleyball team occupied its usual perch atop the Bay Rivers District and advanced to the state final, losing a tough four-set match to perennial champion Loudoun County.

Senior Ellie Popelka, who won a national award for courage upon returning to the court three weeks after brain surgery in 2014, organized a fundraiser at one volleyball match for an area student battling cancer. She won the Daily Press Volleyball Player of the Year Award for her excellence on court.

William Bell was selected the Daily Press' top golfer for his exploits on the links, which included Bay Rivers District and Conference 18 individual titles. The football team showed improvement in winning three games after winning only one in the previous two seasons combined, and Gang Green invaded Wanner Stadium in numbers that often exceeded home crowds everywhere else in the district.

"I think it's just a matter of everybody at Jamestown being friends and wanting to support each other," Eagles senior Page Frantz said. "Whatever the sport, we support and cheer each other."

Rarely has a sport generated the kind of support and enthusiasm of the Jamestown boys basketball team. Friday night sellouts were commonplace, while fans were turned away from the packed gymnasium for the conference and regional championship games against rival Smithfield.

The Eagles won all three home games against the Packers, and 24 others, losing just three times on the season. They advanced all the way to the state championship game before losing to hot-shooting Loudoun Valley at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"It was exciting, especially since it had never happened for boys basketball before," Frantz said. "We were super-proud to drive up to VCU and support them.

"It was definitely a big deal."

Jamestown athletic director Ken Edwards credited the coaching of Donovan Bridgeforth for creating a boys basketball team chemistry that excited students and adults alike. Edwards says coaching is a common theme of Eagles athletic success.

"It all starts with the administration and we've got some fantastic coaches," he said. "You look at the 4A (state) classification and I think we've got at least six of the best coaches.

"We've also got a great group of student-athletes who work hard."

That hard work paid off in a fourth consecutive state championship for the girls swim team. Joelle Vereb won four gold medals in the Eagles' state-meet victory. She was named the Daily Press Swimmer of the Year, although Abby Larson, who also won four golds in the state swim meet, was equally deserving.

The spring season brought some of the most exciting and memorable events. The baseball team lost 1-0 in a 13-inning thriller to defending state champ Hanover in a state quarterfinal (4A East semifinal), but that did not keep team star Ryan Devine from being named the 4A state Player of the Year.

After running its district win streak to an amazing 111 matches, the Eagles' boys tennis team missed a spot in the state championship match by losing an amazing 6 1/2-hour match to Handley in a semifinal. Grayson DeBerry, who teamed with Albon Yowell to reach the state doubles final, was picked as the Daily Press Player of the Year.

Jordan Willis won four events in the 4A state track meet — the 200 meters, 400, long jump and 4x100 relay — to lead the Eagles to a best-ever second-place team finish and was named Daily Press Athlete of the Year. Frantz was named Daily Press girls soccer Player of the Year for leading the Eagles to the state semifinals, their best finish in 18 years.

Jamestown's girls lacrosse team won the state club title by dethroning Tabb 12-11. That was exciting, too, as Sarah Jones scored the winning goal with 64 seconds remaining.

It all culminated in the Exceptional Games, the brainchild of football coach Donnell Brown. Members of the Exceptional Eagles Club, who spend time with special-needs students and pair with them at games and other activities, hosted 300 students with disabilities from each of the high schools and middle schools in Williamsburg and James City County.

Those athletes participated in and won medals in competitions including a football toss, soccer kick, kickball, beanbag toss, potato-sack racing, hula hoop and water-balloon catching. Jamestown's principal, Dr. Catherine Worley, said the Exceptional Eagles typify the school spirit.

"I feel honored to work in such a great community with so many outstanding, coaches, teachers, students and a great athletic director," she said. "There's definitely a lot of school spirit and community spirit."

Daily Press Athletic Program of the Year

2008: Jamestown

2009: Poquoson

2010: Jamestown

2011: Jamestown

2012: Grafton

2013: Hampton Roads Academy

2014: Lafayette

2015: Lafayette

2016: Warhill

2017: Jamestown

O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.

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