Rappahannock County Public Schools’ athletic director Jimmy Swindler just completed his third year as the Panthers’ AD — one that also happens to rank as one of the most successful in the schools’ athletic history.
“I’ve learned a lot in three years,” Swindler says from behind a small mountain of paperwork in his office this week. “I’ve especially learned how much I still don’t know.”
Swindler’s tenure, which formally began in 2011 after he took over from wrestling coach Jamie Harris, was marked, he admits, by “a tumultuous start. The first thing I had to do was cancel a football season. But we’ve recovered from that.”
This year, across all sports, the Panthers claimed seven championship banners — a record number, and thanks largely to a statewide conference realignment meant to help level the playing field for such smaller 1A schools as Rappahannock.
“I can’t take credit for that, no,” Swindler laughs. The idea, implemented over the past two years by the Virginia High School League (Swindler has been a part of VHSL since 1971), was spearheaded by George Mason athletic director Tom Horn. “It took about 18 months to implement . . . I would say I played a small part in seeing it come through.”
That change immediately benefitted the Panthers, who still have to play many larger schools in their geography-based district — but who now spend their postseason competing against similarly-sized public schools of student bodies no larger than 475. For example, Swindler points out that the varsity boys’ soccer team finished its regular season 3-13, but were just one win shy of advancing to a state championship match.
“It puts us on more of a level playing field,” he adds. “I checked earlier when I was ordering our new banners, and our last one was for Scholastic Bowl a few years ago. Girls’ softball won in 2001, but this [year’s crop of seven] is a record number.”
“I don’t think most people understand how many things have to go right in the postseason [to win a championship].” With a little luck and a better bracket, Swindler notes, the Panthers could be celebrating a varsity girls’ soccer championship.
Now, Swindler says his goals have shifted to increasing (and maintaining) junior varsity and junior Panther (J.P.) numbers, and building the success of the football and basketball teams, which Swindler sees as the “flagship programs.”
“When I say that, I mean that those are the sports typically seen as the revenue generators,” Swindler says. “One thing I’d like people to know is that I really do want football to work. I’ve seen what it can do.” In other counties, he says, “it can support an entire athletic department.”
“We haven’t always had a football culture here,” Swindler admits. “When I graduated [from RCHS], I’d never heard of Friday night football. We have to build that here to survive, and I think we’re on the cusp of that. That’s probably been said before,” he laughs. “But not by me.”
Swindler sees this upcoming season as a pivotal one for the football programs, as there are already 40 student athletes trying out for the varsity squad. Their nine-game schedule, Swindler hopes, will give them an opportunity to succeed, encouraging both younger students and the community to get involved.
“The county I’d compare us to most is Madison,” Swindler says, “and they have huge community support over there. Whenever we host them, they’re usually the biggest gate because they send so many supporters out here.”
While he says he’s grateful for the Panther fans who do come out, Swindler admits he’d like to more supporters beyond parents and grandparents of the players. “For two $5 tickets for the adults, and a $3 ticket for the kids, you get three or four hours of entertainment. It’s hard to beat that,” he laughs.
“But nothing breeds support like a little success.”
The J.V. and J.P. teams are more of “a juggling act,” Swindler says, as the number of participants swings dramatically year-to-year. “Last year I fought to get J.V. basketball and girls’ softball teams, and I lost all three this year!”
Fortunately, Swindler says he’s already seen the fruits of some of those efforts at the middle school level. The middle school girls’ and boys’ basketball teams are already beating the same competition they’ll facing at the varsity level, Swindler notes, which bodes well for the Panthers’ future. “We need to keep those numbers, the coaches and offer consistency.”
“We have a participation percentage [of student athletes] as high as any public school in Virginia,” Swindler notes proudly. “Fifty percent of our kids [266 in grades nine through 12] are involved in J.V. or varsity sports . . . We awarded 21 three-sport athlete medals [at the high school level] this year.”
Swindler also notes how grateful he is to the school administration, the coaches themselves and, of course, the students. “[The coaches] have done an outstanding job of attracting students,” Swindler says.
“I’m grateful for all the support from the school board, the community, even the board of supervisors. You don’t always see that . . . It’s sad that it’s a luxury, but it is a luxury. That old saying, ‘The grass is always greener?’ Our grass is pretty green right here.”
And while he says he “can’t take credit for the Julia Woods, or the Gavin Jenkinses or the Dylan Hitts of the world,” he notes that there are plenty of examples of similar “all-world athletes” who don’t succeed — and that’s a testament to the coaches’ work, as well as the students themselves.
At the end of every year, Swindler says, the conference and regions award all-academic teams composed of student-athletes who maintained at least a 3.4 GPA during the season. “We have far and away the most kids on those teams. We’re blowing away the other teams. That’s a real testament to our student-athletes . . . There’s a reason the ‘student’ part comes first.”
“Ultimately, I just want people to say that I left everything in better shape than I found it,” Swindler says. “And we’re definitely in better shape than we were three years ago.”