North of the city, built across the street from Commerce City — Dick's Sporting Goods Park looms in the background — sits Northfield High School. It popped up in the fall of 2015, on the leading edge of a sprawling new housing development that followed the Stapleton explosion in the early part of this decade.
Now, as the school seeks to build its identity, it is putting into place perhaps one of an American high school's most important pieces: A football program.
"It's going to be an opportunity," Northfield athletic director Micah Porter said last week. "We're still a year-and-a-half away from launching full varsity, but that's the beauty of it."
The football program had its first full season last fall, going 7-3 at the junior varsity level. The Nighthawks will again be JV in 2017, before joining Class 3A as a varsity team in 2018 — which happens to be the start of a two-year cycle. That was by design, as was this: 2018 will be the first year the school has seniors.
Of course, "the kids are antsy" to play varsity, Porter said. "They want to be out there."
"But it's thoughtful," he continued. "It's a thoughtful roll out."
Northfield, the first new comprehensive high school built by Denver Public Schools in 35 years (Montbello was the most recent, in 1980), has the potential to become what Highlands Ranch High School was to its area in the 1980s, or what Chaparral was to Parker in the 1990s: The lone big high school serving a rapidly developing area.
"I don't know if everybody knows about it yet," Porter said, gesturing out the window of his second-story office to the campus below.
In an era of small charter schools, this new high school on the edge of a city is surprising in its size. There's a multiuse field, with goalposts and goals, bordered by bleachers. There are softball and baseball fields, which are also rented out by Denver Parks and Rec at times. And there is a massive amount of unused land, dotted by natural grasses that stir in a soft wind on a spring day, a canvass waiting for a project. It's possible that additional athletic fields will be built there in the future.
Currently, 415 students attend Northfield, though the school only has freshman and sophomores. Eventually, it will house around 900, maybe even more, and be a member of the Denver Prep League in 4A. Football will play in 3A initially, but it's possible the program moves up in the coming years.
"We're full-steam ahead," Porter said.
The school, which has an International Baccalaureate program, has a boundary that encompasses all of Stapleton and dips into Park Hill, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch. The intention was to give the school a diverse student body, and it has: roughly 40 percent of the students are Hispanic, 26 percent are white, and 26 percent are black.
"You just walk around our campus, and you'll see a beautiful array of faces," Porter said. "It's really refreshing, and it makes for a foundation that I think will allow for success in the classroom and athletics."
"It really is a blessing to have the diversity we have, in every way," he added later. "And I think it makes any school, any culture, stronger. We are intentionally looking for someone that can bring that lens to whatever programs we have."
That's the first big step Northfield has to take on its road to becoming a varsity football program: Hiring a new coach.
James Hutchins started the program last season, and remains involved in decision-making, but he stepped aside as coach in late March after accepting a leadership role in the school's math department.
Porter, a longtime track and cross country coach at D'Evelyn, is in his first full school year as an athletic director. So he has been making use of a support system at Northfield — namely assistant principal Polica Houston, a former football player at Thomas Jefferson and assistant coach at schools like Cherry Creek, and principal Amy Bringedahl, who coached volleyball, basketball and track.
"What's been really refreshing for me is to have thought partners here in the building that have an athletic mindset, and also value education," Porter said.
Together, they'll hire the coach. And what's the coach look like?
"I think we're going to find out in the next few weeks," Houston joked, before saying that they're looking for a coach that is "going to have high expectations of student-athletes in the classroom and on the field," someone who "understands and appreciates not only the coaching philosophy, but also the philosophy of Northfield, and be able to dive in here."
Houston paused briefly, then added: "And we want a winner. We want a program like Dave Logan's. He's a model for the rest of the state, and does things the right way. And he's consistently won at every stop he's been."
There's a stack of papers tucked neatly into a thick folder on Porter's desk, all applicants for the opening. They're in the process of screening now, even as new papers come in.
"We're being very thoughtful about who we select. We don't want to make any quick decisions," Porter said. "I think the person that's right for the program is already paying attention to what we're doing, and we've got options."
A hire will be made in the next few weeks.
But that's a forest-level decision. There are a number of trees that still need to be planted, as is the case with all programs that are started.
Porter and Houston are making no secret about the program's goal: "We want to be elite in everything we do," Porter said.
And that could have far-reaching consequences for the school.
Said Porter: "I think you'd be fooling yourself if you didn't accept the reality — and this is coming from a cross country coach — of the importance of a football program, and the tone that it can set everywhere in the school: Behavior, academic, athletic, out-of-season, summer, weight room. It all starts with football. Those guys are looked up to. And they have a responsibility, the coaches and the players have a responsibility to uphold those standards. So we get it."
Added Houston: "When you're built out all the way, you want to have 100-plus student-athletes (in a football program) So that's 100-plus students going into the classroom, performing well, having high expectations of their peers and the student body. And a football program also has the responsibility of providing a window into the other athletic programs."
In recent years, schools have started new football programs at Prospect Ridge (2016), Vista PEAK (2012), Mead (2010), and others. Porter has had his eye on those, as well as others around the state.
"It's a benefit, in a way, to watch how successful programs have developed, and being able to borrow from them," he said.
In a year-and-a-half, come some crisp fall night in 2018, the Nighthawks will step out onto a football field, led by a coach selected from that stack of papers on Porter's desk. They'll be a varsity team — a first step, they hope on the way to joining the state's elite.