For Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (in white), playing basketball for T.C. Williams… (Preston Keres -- The Washington…)
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has grown accustomed to the inquiries from strangers in the city of Alexandria who want to know what's up with the star of the T.C. Williams girls' basketball team.
But there was one time, while she was walking between home and one of the town's recreation centers, when a car pulled up alongside her. It gave her an uneasy feeling at first.
"How's everything going on?" the friendly male driver asked the star athlete from the only public high school in Alexandria. The T.C. supporter added, "Just trying to see how you're doing in basketball."
Ruffin-Pratt recognizes that such encounters are part of life as a quasi-celebrity in the big city. Or is it small town? With Alexandria, or at least with the T.C. Williams community, you can never be too sure.
"You just have to be here to experience it," said Ruffin-Pratt, a lifelong Alexandria resident. Several of her relatives have gone to T.C., including her mother, Deneen. "If you're not a part of what we have in Alexandria," she said, "you'll never know."
For the young residents who wear T.C.'s red, white and blue uniforms, particularly basketball players in recent years, Alexandria at times can feel like an urbanized Mayberry. That's no small feat for a bustling borough with about 139,000 residents packed into 15 square miles.
Based on census data, 19.4 percent of the city's residents are younger than 18, one of the lowest percentages in the region. So Alexandria is no minivan mecca. But with T.C. being in existence since 1965, and as the lone city high school since 1971, a sizable portion of the citizenry feels a sense of ownership of the public school and its sports teams. Never mind that T.C. is the third-largest high school in Virginia, with more than 2,800 students.
"We feel as though we have to represent for the whole city, the whole town," said Dominique Copeland, a senior guard on the boys' basketball team, which advanced to the Virginia AAA tournament the past three seasons, and won the title last year.
Sure enough, earlier this month, the City of Alexandria schools' Web site featured celebratory shots of the T.C. boys' basketball team after its win over Hayfield in the Northern Region championship.
The mayor of Alexandria, William D. Euille, is a T.C. alumnus. The school's former athletic director, Kerry Donley, was mayor before he was AD and had five daughters who played sports at T.C. Many graduates work for the city or school system, or have kids who are now second-generation Titans.
The first person a spectator might encounter at a basketball game is city police officer Jim Colantuoni, who works security at the games and was a standout offensive lineman at T.C. in the mid-1970s. Jim's brother Steve is an assistant principal. Girls' basketball coach Cavanaugh Hagen is an alum who works down the hall from her father, George, a longtime teacher at the school.
"It's neat to look up and see fans who have been there for 20-some years," said Hagen, noting that some bring team newspaper articles to distribute to her players.
Alexandria residents, whether from the affluent Seminary Hill neighborhood or the more modest enclaves such as the area of the city known as "The Berg," are on a first-two-initials basis with their community high school, which reopened in 2007 as a $100 million state-of-the-art school. T.C. could lose the "Williams" and no one would miss it.
John Porter, who was principal at T.C. for more than 20 years and now works in the school system's central office, said when he talks with former students, they tend to part with one of them saying, "Once a Titan, always a Titan."
In much of the Washington area, it is difficult to tell where one town ends and the next begins. Are we in Chantilly or Centreville? Columbia or Ellicott City? T.C., though, draws from a fairly well-defined area not to be confused with the part of Fairfax County that calls itself Alexandria. Edison, Hayfield, West Potomac and Mount Vernon all have Alexandria addresses, but T.C. is the only City of Alexandria high school. The others are in the 25-school Fairfax County system.
There are three private schools within two miles of T.C. -- St. Stephen's/St. Agnes, Bishop Ireton and boarding school Episcopal -- but only 35 percent of St. Stephen's students hail from the City of Alexandria, and for Ireton it is 16 percent. Eight percent of Episcopal's students are from either the City of Alexandria or the Alexandria that is in Fairfax County.
Most kids who grow up in the city know they will one day attend T.C., so Alexandria's young athletes are raised to be Titans. The youth teams use the nickname and school colors when playing teams outside the city, getting "all Titaned up," as Jim Gibson, the city's youth sports advisory board chairman, calls it.
Edward Jenkins, a four-year varsity guard on the basketball team, was one such player, and now he is considered royalty by youngsters in town, particularly after playing on the 2008 state championship team.