Basketball preview: In race for top boys’ talent, public schools are often at a loss

December 7, 2011

Romelo Trimble lives in Upper Marlboro, real close to Wise High School. “Directly across the street,” the talented sophomore guard said.

Yet, suiting up for the Pumas’ successful boys’ basketball team — which plays in one of the nicest high school gymnasiums in the Washington area, capable of seating 5,000 with a scoreboard hanging over the floor at midcourt — was never considered.

Like most of the region’s top basketball players, the only question for Trimble was which private school he would attend. Trimble, considered one of the top players in the local class of 2014, picked O’Connell in Arlington over Prince George’s private schools DeMatha and McNamara.

“In basketball, it’s a different world,” said Magruder Coach Dan Harwood, who has guided the Colonels to five regional titles in his 21 seasons at his Derwood school. “The [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] is a notch above everybody else, maybe two notches.”

While most coaches agreed that private schools, especially WCAC powers like DeMatha and Gonzaga, have been landing the area’s top players for quite some time, the disparity seems to be growing. And for top players, the options are no longer limited to the 10 schools in the WCAC, as more private schools appear to be turning to their basketball programs to raise the school profile.


Montrose Christian's Justin Anderson, left, and Michael Carrera stop T.C. Williams' T. J. Huggins during a game last season. The Mustangs, who recruit players on an international scale, open the season No. 1 in The Post’s boys’ top 20. (Preston Keres/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Interstate Athletic Conference teams such as Episcopal, Landon and Bullis have made a push for players; Bullis this season added standout center Andre Walker from Clarksburg, but he is sitting out this season to improve his academic standing. Schools in the Mid-Atlantic Conference — such as Maret, Sidwell Friends and Potomac School – have also entered the fray, changing the image of a league previously considered way down in the basketball pecking order.

Then there are independent programs, such as Montrose Christian, National Christian and Riverdale Baptist. Montrose Christian’s roster includes players from six countries, but some of the Mustangs’ top recent players have come from the Mid-Atlantic region, including 2006 All-Met Player of the Year Kevin Durant, who lived in Suitland, and current standout Justin Anderson, whose family now lives in Montross, Va.

“It’s been a trend for many years, and it certainly has trended upward,” said Montrose Christian Coach Stu Vetter, who has been coaching locally since 1975.

By any measure, it is clear that the top basketball is being played in the private schools. Twelve of The Post’s preseason Top 20 are private schools. Of the 30 players on The Post’s All-Met first-team the past three seasons, just seven have come from public schools and only once since 2004 has there been more first-teamers from public schools than private schools.

Many of the top public school players have developed considerably during their high school careers. Consider last season’s All-Met Player of the Year Greg Whittington, who burst onto the scene after his junior year at Oakland Mills. Others have followed similar paths.

“Most of our players, when they come in, they’re not finished products,” said Eleanor Roosevelt Coach Brendan O’Connell, who has guided the Greenbelt school to four regional titles in his six seasons.

Of those going to private school, many travel a considerable distance. Instead of walking across the street to attend class each morning at Wise, Trimble said he and his mother leave their Upper Marlboro home at 6 each morning and drive to the Morgan Boulevard Metro station to begin the daily commute. He changes trains at Metro Center, then gets off at East Falls Church, where he hopes to catch a bus operated by the school. If all goes well, he arrives at O’Connell by 7:30.

Private school coaches cast their recruiting nets far and wide looking for players to come to their school. At Paul VI Catholic, according to Coach Glenn Farello, four of the team’s starters travel at least 45 minutes each way to get to the Fairfax school.

“There is definitely sacrifice for kids and the families involved to get here,” Farello said. “It’s our job to make it worthwhile.”

Private school coaches often are on the receiving end of unfriendly glares when they step into a public school gymnasium, even if it is just to scout an upcoming opponent.

“They’re looking at me like I’m coming to steal their players,” Episcopal Coach Jim Fitzpatrick said.

It is to the point that Harwood considered it a “luxury to have a player like” junior guard Nick Griffin on his team.

“He’s the first kid I’ve ever coached in 22 years that had [scholarship] offers as a junior, that doesn’t happen too often in public schools,” Harwood said. “We can’t compete with the Catholic league for the most part in basketball, but I offer every one of my kids a full scholarship – free books, free transportation and I work just as hard as the private school coaches do. The job of a public school coach in basketball is to try to make it as attractive as possible, so if a kid isn’t going to play at a DeMatha or Gonzaga of the world, it is a viable option to play at his local public school.”

“Nowadays, I think kids go to schools strictly for sports. Not that they’re not great schools, but it’s strictly, ‘I’m going to go to your school to get me to the next level.’ ”

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