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

Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; D08

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.

"The bleachers are so far [behind] the basket, there's room to play another game in between," Mihailovich said. "There's a lot of action going on in between."

"It affected me," said Caracciolo, a Boston College-bound forward whose team lost to Oakton in the state quarterfinals last season. "You'd see movement in your peripheral [vision] and think it was a teammate, but it could have been a kid running to the concession stand or something. You had to think twice. It throws you off a little bit."

No coach or player interviewed for this story directly credited or blamed the Robinson gym for its wins or losses, and many like the hybrid high school/college feel of the place. But all tend to agree that the venue favors teams that have played there, and the results might bear that out: In state quarterfinals played at Robinson in the past six years, Northern Region boys' and girls' teams won 10 of 13 games but brought home only one state title during that time. The Northern Region in recent years has played its semifinals and championships there, a benefit to the region champions that get to host state games.

"When kids play as many as four games a season in that gym, [at that point] it's just a gym to you," said Osbourn Park girls' Coach Cliff Gorham, whose team technically was the host last year in a quarterfinal loss to West Springfield. "It's a huge advantage."

For T.C. Williams boys' Coach Julian King, whose team will host Hampton school Phoebus on Friday, the issue is not only the depth perception - his team made only 40 of 113 shots at Robinson in the region semifinal and championship - it also is the court surface, which does not have as much give as a wood floor.

"If you go up hard the first couple times and aren't prepared for it when you come down," King said, "that can send shock waves up to your knees."

Okay, so if three-pointers are a problem, and if foul shots are a problem, and if peripheral vision is a problem, what does that leave?

"We'll tell our kids if you play defense and get steals," said Potomac boys' Coach Keith Honore, whose team will play Richmond-area school Highland Springs, "you can make a layup on any basket."

Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com.

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