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For hockey enthusiasts at Flint Hill School, the end of the NHL lockout hasn’t been the only piece of good news this month. Last Thursday, the Oakton private school announced the addition of ice hockey as a varsity program for the 2013-14 academic year, setting the stage for continued improvement to the school’s most popular club team.

Flint Hill’s hockey team was formed prior to the 2008-09 season by a small group of students and parents involved in outside leagues. Since then the team has gained strength every year, currently comprising 18 students –– including two girls –– who range from seasoned travel players to novices with limited recreational experience.

The school’s enthusiasm for the team extends beyond the kids in uniforms, as large student crowds are a regular sight on game nights. Such a high level of interest made Headmaster John Thomas’s decision an easy one to make after second-year head coach Pat Morgan requested the move last month.

“It’s an excellent move in the right direction,” said Greg Lobel, a senior captain who’s been on the team since its inception. “Four years ago when I was a freshman, we started the team with a couple of parents and some kids that played travel hockey. We didn’t do too well, but the popularity was there. Being a varsity sport will allow people that want to play hockey but don’t have the money to play, and it allows us to get a lot better competition.”

Varsity status will erase the financial costs saddled on players’ families in the form of ice time, equipment and league fees. Moreover, it will grant more ice time to a team that currently practices just once per week during a season

that lasts from November through February. It will also give the program a chance to play at the varsity level of the competitive Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League (NVSHL) in future years, although Morgan has opted to keep his team at the junior varsity level for the time being.

“In our league it has to do with skill level of your team,” said Morgan, who has served as Flint Hill’s head of the P.E. department for the past 11 years. “This will help us build on that to hopefully get us within a year or two or three or however long to get us up to that varsity level. The varsity teams around here are pretty good, and we’re only in our fifth year right now.”

The NVSHL’s junior varsity league consists of 17 public schools and three private schools, the other two being Potomac School and Bishop O’Connell. A few of the participating schools combine to fill an adequate number of roster slots, rounding the league out to a total of 13 teams. Coming off a 6-4 upset win against previously undefeated Lake Braddock last Friday, followed by a 5-2 victory over Loudoun Valley/Woodgrove on Sunday, Flint Hill currently sits at 4-2 on the season.

Though they are content to remain in the junior varsity league for now, Flint Hill players and coaches hope to see a continuing influx of talent that will carry the program to the next level in future years. The NVSHL’s varsity league totals 24 teams that draw mainly from Fairfax and Prince William counties. (The league’s only private schools are O’Connell, Bishop Ireton and Paul VI).

In addition to playing against tougher competition, moving up would pit Flint Hill in a league that provides a playoff format at season’s end, something the junior varsity league doesn’t offer.

Bumping Flint Hill up to varsity would be another welcome sign for a league that has seen rapid growth since its inception 11 years ago. According to NVSHL Executive Director Greg Bullen, the varsity and junior varsity divisions have added 14 teams since that time, and a 14-team middle school division is being added for the first time this year. Those schools primarily draw from Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington.

“I think it’s growing around here. A lot of the high schools have teams, and the quality of the play is improving all the time,” said Morgan, whose team plays home games at SkateQuest in Reston. “There are a lot of really good players around here. The quality of play and popularity of hockey is definitely on the rise. We have middle schoolers and high schoolers here that are playing on club teams in Ashburn and Reston.”

Regardless of what level they reach, Flint Hill players are just happy to see their program get the recognition it deserves.

“I’m thrilled it’s becoming a varsity sport,” sophomore goalie Jack Jenet said. “It gives everyone who can’t afford it a chance to come out and play, and it’s just going to make our name, Flint Hill, that much better.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com