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City Title Game no longer consistently crowns area's best high school basketball team

By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 12:22 AM

Fourth-ranked DeMatha plays 20th-ranked Theodore Roosevelt on Monday night in the Abe Pollin City Title Game at Verizon Center. The event, created more than 50 years ago and matching the city's public school champion against the titlist from the Catholic league, was designed to determine which high school boys' basketball team is the best in the Washington area.

For many years, the game served that exact purpose. But with the exception of last season's matchup of No. 1 DeMatha and No. 2 Ballou, recent renewals of the event have offered no such finality. The reason is simple: Many of the region's top teams do not schedule each other, whether by choice or due to other commitments. It is an issue that everyone from the dealmakers at Nike, to area coaches, to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) have taken notice of, with tentative steps being made to create such games in coming seasons.√

"It would be good for the city [for top teams to play each other]," said Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner, whose school has invited top-ranked Montrose Christian to play in its annual Gonzaga D.C. Classic tournament next December. "It's good for basketball. It's what fans want to see. Players want to play each other. Coaches certainly want to coach against each other."

The top 10 teams in The Post's current rankings combined to play a total of one nonleague game against each other this season. And that game - the Prince George's County championship between sixth-ranked Friendly and ninth-ranked Wise - occurred only because each team won its respective league and was required to play the other. Otherwise, there is almost no crossover between the area's top private school leagues, top public school leagues and top independent teams.

Next year, though, for the first time, it appears that the area's two longstanding powerhouses - DeMatha and Montrose - might finally meet on the basketball court instead of only in debates about which team is best.

"It's in the discussion stage," Montrose Coach Stu Vetter said. "I think it's going to become a reality, very possibly next year."

Those discussions, though, have yet to occur between Vetter and DeMatha Coach Mike Jones, who have not spoken about playing each other in five years, according to Jones. Vetter said the teams had a tentative agreement to play in 2007 but that DeMatha backed out; Jones denies there was ever any agreement.

Regardless, there is increasing pressure on the teams to finally settle things on the basketball court, with the shoe company that sponsors both teams - Nike - interested in seeing the game together.

"It's time, it's long overdue," Jones said. "It would be something we could play annually, not just the years we think we can beat them or the years they think they can beat us. We should just play. . . . It would be good basketball. It would be great for this area, for the teams. It would be a very competitive game, I would think."

It also would be a rare game against a top local opponent for both teams, who prefer to play their tough nonleague games against teams from outside the area.

DeMatha, for instance, is limited by the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference to 28 games, 18 of which are against league opponents. Three or four more come in a holiday tournament. Then there are one-day showcase events; this season the Stags played in four of those. That leaves only a few games to schedule, and Jones likes to play many of the same opponents each year, rather than coaches that call to schedule a game when they have a good team.

"I think it's clear we're not scheduling cupcakes," he said.

Montrose Christian is unable to play Maryland public schools because the Rockville school is not on the list of private schools that meet the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association's Standards of Competition. The Mustangs annually play T.C. Williams, which usually is one of the top teams in Northern Virginia, but also play their stiffest competition in holiday tournaments and showcases, though as an independent they do not have any scheduling limitations.

However, Vetter said it was unlikely the Mustangs would play in the Gonzaga tournament next year because of an annual commitment to play in another tournament.

Landon and Episcopal, the top two teams in the region's other top private school league, the increasingly-competitive Interstate Athletic Conference, turned down invitations for this past year and this coming year, respectively.

Many coaches also favor the creation of an end-of-season tournament that could determine the area's top team.

The City Title Game, created in 1957, used to do that. For years, the WCAC and the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association not only were considered the best leagues in the area, they were among the best in the nation.

But while the WCAC still holds the same clout, the DCIAA has fallen off as more and more top players reside outside the city, or the city's top players choose to attend a growing number of private schools.

Gray, a former Dunbar High baseball player whose interest in sports is well documented, said that as part of the "One City" campaign he ran to win the mayoral election last year, he is interested in the creation of a tournament between Christmas and New Year's Day that could invite the region's top teams and determine an unofficial champion.

"Years ago, when I first started coaching, the City Title Game was the same format as it is today but the landscape of high school basketball has changed so dramatically that I think it's time for an area change for determining who is the city champion," Vetter said. "Many teams compete for the city championship who are not from the city. Why should it be any different for any other team to compete for the championship in a tournament format?"

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