At Bishop Ireton, a WCAC win would be a step in the right direction

January 15, 2012

Washington Catholic Athletic Conference girls’ basketball teams dot national rankings. Five league members have won the past five conference titles. The WCAC routinely stocks college programs, with 11 commitments already from the Class of 2012, and more on the way.

The view from the top of the 10-team league is majestic. The view from the bottom? Not nearly as awesome.

After its 57-52 loss Friday to McNamara, Alexandria private school Bishop Ireton has dropped 70 consecutive games against WCAC competition, raising the question of whether Ireton is an unambitious program masquerading as a WCAC member or just a struggling squad in a prolonged funk among supposed peers.

“It’s tough because you hit a wall sometimes and you get used to losing,” senior guard Reeme Lghzaoui said after a recent game.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, the Cardinals (4-12, 0-7 host O’Connell (8-11, 0-9), the last WCAC team it topped, 46-36, on Feb. 3, 2008, in perhaps its best chance for a league victory this season.

For the Cardinals, a win would be the greatest thing to hit Ireton since kiss-blowing hitmaker Taylor Swift graced Whaley Auditorium in the spring of 2009, reward for the school winning a text-messaging contest.

“This is going to be a really big game,” senior guard Jasmine Conkright said. “Our first league win in four years would be a really big deal.”

“We still feel that we can still change this whole Ireton program,” senior forward Bianca Ojiegbe said. “I’m still having fun with my teammates. That’s why it gets frustrating for us. Our goal is to get a win. We want to leave on a positive note.”

Second-year Coach Derek Campbell, who led alma mater McNamara to a WCAC boys’ title in 1995, last year inherited the losing streak, the league’s new shot-clock rule and the responsibility of coaching girls for the first time.

Now that the novelty of all three has worn off at Ireton, with an annual tuition between $12,000 and $16,000 and an enrollment of 825, he sees what he’s up against.

“I knew that it would be a challenge,” said Campbell, who admits to putting on a “poker face” at times when trying to convince his team it can win games against particular opponents. “I just didn’t think it would be this tough.

“Here, the culture’s different. The school is almost satisfied with the girls’ program being second tier, in terms of what they’re offering to get girls in. Your sell is a great school, great atmosphere and great league, but you’re recruiting against guys No. 2 in the country, No. 5 in the country.

“Get one good recruit and the rest will come. It’s just getting the one good recruit that’s the problem.”

In that 2008 win over O’Connell, Ireton got 12 points each from Rachel Martin and Mary Kate Curry, seniors who went on to play at Mary Washington and Christopher Newport, respectively. No Ireton girls’ basketball product has played in college since. Every other WCAC program has at least one alumnus currently playing in college.

“In our league, if you don’t recruit, you’re done,” Campbell said. “Because if not, [other schools are] going to get your players, and somebody else’s, too.”

Ireton Athletic Director Bill Simmons believes the program is moving in the right direction and cites the school’s successes in some other WCAC girls’ sports. He notes possible talents in the sub-varsity programs. (Campbell has a daughter, Nia, on the Cardinals’ freshman team).

“I think we’re closer than we know,” Simmons said. “From time to time, there are kids who might get into other schools who can’t academically qualify to come here. We’re not last when it comes to being able to provide financial aid, but we’re not first . . . and in this economy, the need is very great.

“We’re looking for the kids that want to play as freshmen and say, ‘I’ll take this program on my shoulders, and I’m going to take them where they haven’t been in a while.’ ”

Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area.

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