Sun rays pierced the fluffy clouds on a late August afternoon, illuminating Valor Christian High School with a seemingly biblical incandescence.
Game night. Tailgate. A lively live band. Faces painted with Valor V's, others with crosses. Parents in the school's official Nike apparel mingled outside the freshly minted stadium, surrounded by scurrying 5-year-old kids, all older than the campus itself.
Kickoff. Class 4A Valor hosted Grandview, a top Class 5A team. Final score: 45-17, Valor.
Five years ago, this sprawling site in Highlands Ranch was just grass. Now, it's a glorious campus, with a $23 million sports complex, accomplished coaches and big-money donors. Valor has snatched the "soda can" that is Colorado prep sports, shaken it up and gleefully popped the top.
"You hear a lot of different things out there, but we are so proud of our Valor boys," said Yvonne Hinesley, whose son plays on the football team, as the sun set on the tailgate. "Maybe other schools are a little jealous that we have grown so fast, but I just want them to know that we work hard, really hard."
She then bent down and spoke loudly into a reporter's recorder: "Join Valor. It's a great school!"
Notably in football, the Valor Christian Eagles have become not just a state power, but among the best programs in the country, rarely challenged in winning the Class 4A title this fall. In Saturday's championship game, they crushed Pine Creek 66-10, setting a record for points scored in a championship game.
But along the way, Valor has infuriated many with its aggressive tactics and unabashed pursuit of excellence.
Some schools have simply stopped scheduling the Eagles. Littleton forfeited on game day this fall. And recently, when Valor administrators tried to find a new conference to join, they had doors closed in their faces as if they were selling encyclopedias.
"They kind of just got blackballed, for lack of a better word," said Mark Nolan, the football coach at Regis Jesuit, a rival private school.
Valor has fielded varsity sports for a mere four years but it has already filled a trophy case. It has won three consecutive state football titles. The girls soccer team, which plays in the spring, has played in the state title game all three seasons. Boys track won state in the 4x100-meter relay and 4x200 last spring. Heck, the boys golf team won state the first year it fielded a team.
"The (founders) of Valor, they didn't start out and say, 'Let's desire to be mediocre,' " Eagles athletic director Rod Sherman said. "They came out and said, 'Whatever we do, do with all your might for the glory of God.' "
Excellence is Valor's mantra, and image-conscious administrators preach it at every turn.
Still, an investigation by The Denver Post uncovered numerous violations by the athletic department, including nine restrictions or probations issued by the Colorado High School Activities Association over the past four years. While seven of the nine violations could be deemed minor, two specifically have given rise to the school's win-at-almost-any-cost reputation.
Valor's head football and track coaches were put on probation by CHSAA for their actions at Valor's 2010 Nike Invitational track meet, where visiting athletes and coaches claimed members of the Eagles' staff tried to recruit star performers.
Keith Wahl, hired to start Valor's baseball program, wasn't allowed by CHSAA to coach in the 2009 postseason because he e-mailed players from his previous school, Mountain Vista, introducing his new Eagles program.
In addition, former star quarterback Brock Berglund told The Denver Post that when he was in the eighth grade he met with members of the coaching staff, which helped convince him to enroll. (It is against CHSAA rules to target an eighth-grader using sports as a recruiting tool.)
Suddenly they're outsiders
There's venom vis-u-vis Valor, to be sure. It came to a head last month at CHSAA's conference and league classification meeting, where the school was forced to go independent in all sports except for football, lacrosse and hockey, because no other league wanted to invite the Eagles.
Perhaps more telling: Valor still isn't a full CHSAA member. Upon joining CHSAA, all new schools are placed on a probationary status. Valor was due to come off that status and become a full member last month, but the membership voted to keep the school on probationary status. And while that ruling was more symbolic than meaningful — Eagles teams are still allowed to fully compete — it's believed to be the first time a school wasn't granted full membership on its first try.
How poor is Valor's reputation in the prep football community? Jerry Howard runs Biokats, which hosts workouts for high school athletes to showcase talents to college recruiters. He scheduled an event on Valor's campus.
"But I had to cancel it," he said, "because most of the (area) high school coaches said they weren't going to send their players there. The other football coaches in the area had kids cherry-picked right out of their pocket to go to Valor."
Numerous area school administrators have suggested that Valor Christian is fine taking slaps on the wrist by CHSAA en route to building an athletic dynasty.
But Kurt Unruh, Valor's president and head of school, disputes that characterization.
"It was asked of me, 'It sounds like you don't care.' . . . I mean, how far from the truth is that?" he said. "We are completely at the mercy, if you will, or at the decision-making power of CHSAA."
Asked about the desire to be the best, he said, "If we weren't very good at sports, we wouldn't be executing our mission to pursue excellence in everything."
Nolan, coach at rival Regis Jesuit, which lost to Valor this past season, said Valor's goal is to "be the best football team in the nation. Everything else is kind of built around the fact that that's what they want to do."
To become a national power, Nolan and multiple other coaches and people interviewed for this story believe Valor is specifically targeting promising young athletes, a tactic Nolan calls "shady." The tentacles reach into the middle-school leagues for football, but also into the freshman and junior varsity ranks for all sports, according to Nolan and others.
"They have a standard operating procedure," said Nolan, who said he is aware of this happening to Regis Jesuit students. "You name the sport, when the competition's over at the JV and freshman level, they hunt up the families and kids that competed well against them and say, 'Hey, are you happy where you're at?' "
"They're getting whoever they want," added John Vogt, the coach at Chaparral, a public high school in Parker. "They're blatant."
Asked about those comments, and others like them from area coaches, Unruh seemed genuinely taken aback.
"We're asked: 'Why are schools frustrated with you? Why are they not willing to participate with you? What is it about Valor that has everybody up in arms?' " Unruh asked aloud. "I don't have the slightest idea."
Lofty early standards
It all started in a Costco parking lot.
Memorial Day, 2006. Sherman was then the athletic director and offensive coordinator at Orange Lutheran, a private high school in California, where he and his close friend, Brent Vieselmeyer, the defensive coordinator, orchestrated a football powerhouse.
That day, Sherman received a call from Bob Coleman, who said he had a vision of an upstart school in Colorado.
"What attracted me was the vision for excellence that Valor stated in their earliest written materials," said Sherman, who came to Valor that winter, after winning a championship in California. Sherman became the Eagles' athletic director and offensive coordinator, and hired Vieselmeyer to be the head football coach. (Vieselmeyer is also the dean of admissions, prompting Paul Angelico, the CHSAA commissioner, to say: "If there's not something wrong with it, the appearance that (there might be) something wrong with it is enough to say 'stop.' ")
Those who founded Valor had a simple vision: " 'Whatever we decide to do, let's pursue excellence, let's try to do it at the highest possible level,' " Sherman said. "Not out of arrogance, but out of a calling."
Valor teams are financed from tuition, student sports fees, gate receipts, a booster club and passionate donors. As for the school, it's palatial. There are state-of-the-art facilities — Unruh estimated that the 4,000-seat football stadium cost between $8 million and $9 million. An expansive weight room features numerous weight-training coaches on site and even an array of Muscle Milk products for students.
This school year, the athletic budget at Valor is $1.2 million.
"One guy gave me a tour over there, and their video equipment, you could put it at CU in a heartbeat. It's ridiculous," Chaparral's Vogt said. "I have to fundraise every penny. I get $500 every year to run this program from the district. I have to fundraise about $40,000-50,000 a year just to put helmets, shoulder pads, uniforms on my boys, plus pay for buses. It's a grind.
"I've got eight assistant coaches that aren't paid a dime. A dime."
(Since Valor is a private school, it doesn't have to reveal financial details involving its staff.)
The speed at which Valor has gone from start-up to domination stuns even veteran prep observers. On May 20, 2009, the Valor girls soccer team — in its first varsity season — played in the 4A state title game, with at least nine eventual college soccer players taking the field that day for Valor, which lost to Wheat Ridge 2-1.
"Seeing that group there so fast, honestly for me, it's a sour taste in my mouth, just knowing what our kids had gone through to be in that position," Wheat Ridge athletic director Nick DeSimone said. "How come they're that much better? How are you doing this, so good, so fast?' "
In the case of the soccer team, the school hitched its wagon to the prominent Real Colorado girls soccer club. Valor hired coach Brock Becker, whose brother-in-law is Jared Spires, the chief administrative officer of Real Colorado. And Becker's daughter happened to be a talented young soccer player. Soon enough, Colorado's budding footballers came to the same school that also enticed Colorado's budding football players.
"They said to us, 'Hey look, if you come here, we can accomplish this, this and this,' " said a parent of a former Valor soccer player, who requested anonymity.
Multiple athletes, or their parents, told The Denver Post they were on some sort of tuition assistance while at Valor, which isn't uncommon at large private schools. Families who can't afford the full $13,950 are hooked up with FACTS, a third-party program, which determines how much of the tuition a household can afford. The school then takes care of the rest with tuition assistance or scholarships. (This school year, Valor will offer close to $2.4 million in overall tuition assistance.)
Ask the adamant public school supporters about the private school advantages and the "scholarship" issue will almost always come up. They will suggest that star athletes get tuition assistance just because they're star athletes. All students, though, can seek financial assistance.
CHSAA, aware of skepticism, recently had private schools share their tuition assistance data, comparing the student-athletes to the overall student population. According to CHSAA, Valor, and all other private schools, did not show disproportionate percentages of football players receiving tuition assistance.
Valor is a game-changer.
The Eagles get Broncos' sons. Two of its best football players are Christian and Max McCaffrey, Ed's boys. Brian Dawkins' son plays for Valor too, on the freshman team.
They get Avs to coach their hockey team. An assistant coach is Stephane Yelle, who played for both Stanley Cup champs here in Colorado.
The Eagles' golf coach, Jason Preeo, played in the U.S. Open last year.
With its coaches, campus, pedigree and tuition assistance, Valor can be irresistible to top youth athletes, notably football players.
But Valor is not just for jocks.
Of its graduates, according to Valor's 2010-11 fact book, 97 percent were accepted to a four-year college, and the average GPA was 3.20. And, while 74 percent of students are involved with athletics, according to the fact book, 85 percent are involved with the arts in some capacity.
"For us, it was, pursue excellence in all, in girls soccer like AP Chemistry class," said Sherman, the Valor AD.
As Valor grows — remember, it was just a grassy, empty field five years ago — one can only wonder how big and powerful it will become. This scares some.
But not John Schultz, football coach at the public school Grandview, a state semifinalist this year, whose team was manhandled by Valor this fall.
"We live in America. It's capitalism," Schultz said. "The great thing about living in America is that competition and that drive to be great. You try to make the rules to make everyone play fair, but that's not how our society has grown great."
Perhaps the story that sums up Valor best is from the state golf championships last season. There was Valor — so good, so fast — competing for yet another title. During the tournament, there was a question whether an Eagles golfer hit a putt before the ball came to a complete stop.
Said CHSAA's Angelico, who was there: "All the kid could say was: 'You know what? Everybody already hates our school so much, if that's another stroke, just give it to me. I don't need our school to be hated any more than it currently is.' "
Staff writer Electa Draper contributed to this report.