Some of Best High School Basketball Teams Will Play in National Tournament in Washington D.C.

The National High School Invitational will invite some of the country's top basketball teams. "We live for this," said Frank Oliver, who coaches the H.D. Woodson girls' team. Many of the best squads will turn down invitations.
The National High School Invitational will invite some of the country's top basketball teams. "We live for this," said Frank Oliver, who coaches the H.D. Woodson girls' team. Many of the best squads will turn down invitations. (By Joel Richardson For The Washington Post)
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By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Several of the country's top high school basketball teams will travel to the Washington area in April for a postseason tournament that could be the first step to the creation of a national high school championship in the sport.

Previous attempts to determine a national No. 1 team have failed, but those behind the National High School Invitational believe their event -- created and organized by ESPN and Chicago-based Paragon Marketing Group -- has all of the elements needed to succeed. "I look at the success of our showcases for [televising high school] football and basketball and I like our chances," said James Brown, senior vice president for ESPN Rise, the cable network's division dedicated to high school athletics.

The inaugural tournament will be held April 3-5 at Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, with an eight-team boys' tournament and a four-team girls' tournament; both are single-elimination events, with every game televised live on one of ESPN's channels. A network spokesman said invitations will be based on rankings compiled by ESPN Rise. Teams that include players who are past their fourth year of high school or the public-school age limit of 19 on Sept. 1 of any school year will not be included.

The chance to play on television is a significant draw, one that other tournaments have lacked. That, along with the cachet of playing in a national tournament affiliated with the cable network, is another reason organizers say they are well positioned.

Brown also pointed to ESPN's success with a postseason all-star football game and offseason baseball and softball showcases. ESPN's goal is to continue to build its portfolio of high school athletic events, not to create an NCAA-style national championship, and Brown said that this year's invitational won't be billed as a national championship tournament. Many top teams will not be able to participate -- and it is likely no public schools will compete.

The event was scheduled to coincide with the NCAA Final Four for men's and women's college teams, but that also means it will take place several weeks after public schools complete their state tournaments. And most state high school associations have rules dictating that the playing season ends with their state tournaments.

"Of course, we're running into a tough challenge with high schools ending the season early and those type of things," Brown said. "But we felt we should be able to work around some of that."

Rashid Ghazi, a partner at Paragon, said that because of the National Federation of State High School Associations rules, it was decided not to pursue permission for any public school teams to play this year. Brown acknowledged that ESPN hopes the NFHS could help smooth things out with its members in the future. Any progress seems unlikely to happen in time for this year's tournament, but organizers hope a successful event this spring will lead to more schools wanting to participate in future years.

"The plan is for the tourney to morph into a national championship," a person who had spoken with event organizers said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of discussions.

Whether the national federation gives its blessing also seems questionable. Bob Gardner, the federation's chief operations officer, said the membership does not support national championships and that conducting a nationwide tournament pitting teams that abide by national and state association rules against private schools that operate under other rules would be problematic. "It would be an apples-and-oranges kind of affair," Gardner said. "Our perspective is this would not fall under an educational mission for our members to participate."

Public schools aren't the only ones that will turn down invitations. The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, whose members include many of the region's top boys' and girls' teams, has elected not to participate, according to league commissioner Jim Leary. "Even though our kids do play in the City Title game and the Alhambra [Catholic Invitational] tournament [this year scheduled for March 19-21], it was still stretching out the season another month," Leary said. "And some of the schools that are going to compete -- nothing critical of them -- but they just have different missions."

Ghazi said that private school associations in Texas and North Carolina also declined permission to allow their teams to play this year.

The Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association has agreed to grant permission to any of its boys' teams that are invited, as has its girls' counterpart, the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland. The Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association also will allow its members to play if invited. Several individual schools also have agreed to participate if invited, including Montrose Christian, whose boys' team currently is No. 1 in The Post's rankings. D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Troy Mathieu said he was familiar with the invitational but had not researched it to determine if D.C. public school teams would be allowed to participate. One of his coaches, however, was ready to play.

"We live for this," said Frank Oliver, whose H.D. Woodson girls' basketball team began the season ranked No. 1 by The Post. "That's the perfect opportunity right there. I've got to check with the administrators of the DCIAA, but as far as me? We're in it. Is there any way for me to sign up? I want to be in it. If they contact you, give them my info."

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