Janet Rasmussen is bringing pride back to Oak Ridge sports

The Pioneers are ranked No. 13 in the Orlando Sentinel spring football Super 16 rankings

The Ridge is officially back. So 17-year-old basketball and football player Revel Luvin tells me.

Oak Ridge High School never left, but anyone who has coached, taught or attended the school can tell you that until three years ago, school spirit dried up around the time the basketball coach saw a rat running across the old gym.

"My freshman year, people were like calling Oak Ridge 'joke ridge' or 'broke ridge,' " Luvin said as he looked down at his black Oak Ridge baseball cap. "Now, everybody wants to see what's up with Oak Ridge. It's buzzing."

Oak Ridge has new facilities – the football field, track and tennis courts are expected to open this September. It has new sports, including lacrosse and water polo teams in the works, and, most important, a new attitude behind the vision of athletic director Janet Rasmussen.

Rasmussen hit yet another milestone during her short tenure Friday when she spearheaded the school's first Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The Pioneers sports program is entering its 55th year in existence. You could say they were long overdue for a Hall of Fame class.

Forget those cold chicken dinners at stuffy hotels. Rasmussen brought this celebration directly to the student body at the gym during school hours.

The ROTC stood guard over a red carpet as the 20 inductees – including NFL veterans like Earl Carr and Olympians like Michelle Finn – walked toward the center of the gym.

"Did you know we have two Olympic athletes that graduated from Oak Ridge?" Rasmussen asked the students.

Some greeted her question with curious stares, others saved their interest for their cell phones. Either way, a seed was planted. Oak Ridge students have and can accomplish great things.

That's why Rasmussen paid little attention to the D and F ratings that plagued the school for much of the past decade and the economic challenges most of the student body face (at least 90 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch plans) when she left a teaching position with the DeVos Sports Business Management program at the University of Central Florida to run the Oak Ridge athletic department three years ago.

The question was not why, but rather why not?

"Coming in, I felt like one of the ways I could help the athletic program was to make sure all of our students had the same opportunities that other high school students in Orange County have," she said.

She immediately went to work by reinstating wrestling, tennis, golf, swimming, junior varsity softball and baseball teams to the predominantly Latino and black population at Oak Ridge. The biggest change, however, came with her work to restore relationships with alumni and provide more financial relief for her coaches.

Rasmussen started an annual charity golf tournament to raise money for uniforms, transportation and food costs for students and their families. She even landed a grant from Nike for $25,000 during her first year to help purchase new uniforms for the basketball, softball and soccer teams.

"Dr. Razz has made a tremendous difference in making it so that we're a pure metro school," said basketball coach Alex Jackson.

Mark Noel, assistant athletic director and tennis coach, says coaches and administrators are watching Oak Ridge reclaim its proud history under Rasmussen.

"For today's Oak Ridge, she is someone that has high standards and expectations and she truly wants sportsmanship to be the first part of being a student athlete," Noel said. "She puts in many, many hours to make sure we are moving forward."

A part of moving forward means never forgetting to look back. The Hall of Fame induction is scheduled as an annual event and Rasmussen said they will purchase more banners to go along with the 20 hanging in the walkway of the new gym.

It's a small, daily encouragement for students to strive for greatness.

"Just walking in and seeing that…," Luvin said. "I imagine seeing my name up there one day and being recognized."

sjowens@orlandosentinel.com

CHICAGO