Varsity Letter

Varsity Letter: Virginia teams face a common opponent, Robinson's court

Robinson in Fairfax holds 4,500 fans in bleachers set up on all four sides of the court. The venue will host Virginia A, AA and AAA tournament games tonight and tomorrow.
Robinson in Fairfax holds 4,500 fans in bleachers set up on all four sides of the court. The venue will host Virginia A, AA and AAA tournament games tonight and tomorrow. (Richard A. Lipski)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011

Stonewall Jackson forward Joy Caracciolo could not immediately discern if a teammate was cutting to the basket or if a student was making a beeline for a Snickers.

Shooting from the free throw line felt like a shady carnival game to the Osbourn Park girls, whose attempts seemed to fall just short or sail just long. They missed 8 of 12 in a five-point loss.

Potomac Falls senior guard Lukas Mihailovich describes the foot grip on the unconventional floor as "weird."

This is what it can be like for players from outside the Northern Region - and even those from within - to compete in Virginia basketball quarterfinals at Robinson in Fairfax, as 16 teams will Friday night and Saturday in various first-round games in the A, AA and AAA state tournaments.

The gym at the Fairfax school is unlike a typical high school court because of its capacity (4,500), configuration (bleachers on the sides and behind each basket) and floor (rubberized surface).

The office of Robinson Athletic Director Marty Riddle is just off the gym, so he is often privy to the reactions of players and coaches when they enter the facility for the first time.

"You'll hear a group of 15 or 20 people and it's, 'Wow,' " Riddle said. "When we have teams coming up from around the state, and some single-A and double-A schools come up, they're mesmerized by it pretty much because it's something brand new for them."

Players and coaches expect that wow factor when they enter a college gym. But when a game is scheduled for a high school, they envision a standard wood court and baskets with a bland, immobile backdrop several feet behind it.

What they get at Robinson is the unusual court surface and backboards that are windows into the bleachers at each end of the court. There is near-constant movement behind the baskets, from the floor on up. That can be a challenge for shooters, who have only a 20-minute warmup to acclimate.

"We didn't have a clue until we got there," said Tabb boys' Coach Doug Baggett, whose team lost to Potomac Falls at Robinson last year in the Virginia AA Division 4 quarterfinals and will face the Panthers again Saturday. "It's a tough adjustment. Your depth perception's done. The further you get away from the basket, the more the depth perception [issue] is prevalent. Once you get out there in la-la land [three-point range], it looks like you're in space world."

Psychologically, the gym can present a greater challenge than the opposing team, because it's easier to scout an opponent than it is to prepare players for the quirks of the facility. And coaches say you run the risk of overemphasizing how the gym is different, which can cause players to dwell on the layout instead of doing the things that got them into the state tournament in the first place.

At most high school gyms, there is foot traffic behind the basket only during stoppages of play, if then. At Robinson, those areas are main thoroughfares for fans.

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