A Forum for All Teams and All Seasons

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

There are any number of highways, streets and bridges stitching Virginia, Maryland and the District into one ever-stretching metropolis. You've probably been stuck in traffic on many of them.

But other than the relatively rare game, match or meet that pits athletes from the various jurisdictions against one another, there's no Beltway, 14th Street Bridge or Wisconsin Avenue to connect high school athletics in the Washington area. It's almost as if a school bus needs a passport to cross the Potomac.

Well, we're out to change all that, one week at a time. Varsity Letter is a new feature that will run every Thursday during the school year in The Washington Post's Extra sections in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Most Extra articles are tailored to a specific area, but Varsity Letter will be the same in all of the Extras (about 672,000 papers). It's our bid to bravely ford the river that divides us, providing some context to a three-headed prep sports scene that comprises almost 300 schools.

There is plenty of common ground to cover. After all, they're all high school sports programs, with high school kids filling the uniforms. But each of the three jurisdictions, and the many pockets within them, have their own personalities and customs and concerns -- differences we want to highlight.

For example, one of the main issues for Allen Chin, executive director of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, is the charter schools that attract students from public schools. Some charter schools want their teams to play in the association, but they are not permitted to join.

"They want the advantage of being independent of the school system but want to take part in our programs," Chin said. "You can't have it both ways."

All school systems face the challenge of paying for their programs and facilities. One of the best ways is to keep the turnstiles clicking.

"You're competing for entertainment dollars, and you can routinely count on parents and friends coming" to games, said Paul Jansen, supervisor of athletics for Fairfax County. "But to people who aren't particularly tied into a sport or a team or a school, how can we continue to show them that watching a high school event is money well spent, both in the short term and the long term?"

Severna Park field hockey coach Lil Shelton, whose team has won 15 state titles during her 31 years at the Anne Arundel County school, would like to see more publicity for her sport, particularly at its highest levels. But she's just as concerned about the direction of high school athletics in general.

"I think the mentality has gotten to be 'win at all costs,' which I don't aspire to," said Shelton, a stickler for tucking in shirttails. "We have a lot of coaches that come in [and say], 'Gotta win, gotta win, gotta win. No matter what you do, put the ball in the goal or the ball in the hoop.' The camaraderie you learn, or teamwork, helping each other, being courteous to opponents -- there's so much these kids have to learn."

With help from other Post high school sports reporters -- Josh Barr, Alan Goldenbach, Daniel Lyght, Stephen A. Norris and Eli Saslow -- and several freelance writers, we also will keep an eye out for the offbeat stuff that has had no forum in the paper. There is always something going on at a high school sporting event, in addition to the event itself.

For example: Annandale is one of the best places in the region to watch a football game, but why couldn't those chest-painted fans, spirited as they were, keep their "GO ATOMS" message intact at the recent home opener against Chantilly? Every time I glanced over, they seemed to be forming an anagram, and often an incomplete anagram at that.

Were they pledging their devotion to former Orioles and Nationals outfielder Luis MATOS? Conducting a fundraiser to cure GOAT MS? Considering a fantasy football draft selection of Eagles running back Ryan MOATS?

Had I not been outnumbered and, quite possibly, double-parked, I would have demanded an answer.

Kidding aside, this column will not be the only home for the expanded high school coverage. I'll also write weekday entries for a blog at washingtonpost.com. My goal is for the blog to blossom into a lively meeting place where athletes, parents, administrators and fans of high school sports can chat about the events of the day and their similarities and differences.

There's room at the table for everybody -- folks affiliated with D.C. schools, Virginia schools, Maryland schools, public schools, private schools, even home schools.

So let's make it a weekly date in the Extras and a daily date at washingtonpost.com.

Until next time, as the roaming painted chests at Annandale might declare, "OAT SMOG!"

© 2006 The Washington Post Company