Private school leagues, stricter rules hamper Northern Region in pursuit of state basketball championships

By Paul Tenorio and James Wagner
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:07 PM

On Wednesday afternoon, the fourth-ranked West Springfield girls and 10th-ranked T.C. Williams boys will walk onto the court at the Siegel Center in Richmond with a trip to the AAA state championship on the line. If either team should prevail on Friday in the state final, it would mark just the second time a team from the Northern Region has brought home a championship since 1999.

Among the reasons for this drought, coaches say, the most impactful have been the strength and multitude of the D.C. area's private schools, the improvement of AAU basketball throughout the state and the Northern Region's stricter out-of-season guidelines.

The D.C. area is host to nearly a dozen private school leagues, from the well-known Washington Catholic Athletic Conference to the smaller Independent School League, that offer a variety of options - many of which are less restrictive for coaches. The presence of these private school programs, especially ones with national reputations such as Montrose Christian's boys and Riverdale Baptist's girls, is a hurdle not faced by coaches in any other Virginia region.

"They have more choices than down here [in the Eastern Region]," said Kecoughtan Coach Ivan Thomas, who was named 2008 All-Met Coach of the Year after leading T.C. Williams to its boys' title. "Down here, quite frankly, most of the attention goes to our public schools. We have very few private schools where our top kids go."

The variety of private schools across the metropolitan area provide options that meet the needs of almost any student, coaches say, and those programs have lured away a wide range of kids - some of whom would likely have been challengers for region player of the year, and others who would have played lesser, yet still key roles for Northern Region teams.

Kethan Savage, a standout guard for Chantilly last season when it won the Northern Region boys' title and advanced to the state semifinals, transferred to No. 3 Episcopal during the offseason. Ben Dickinson, a starter at No. 7 Gonzaga, lives in the T.C. Williams boundary. Mo Alie, a standout 6-foot-7 forward at Middleburg Academy, would likely have made South County among the region's top boys' teams this year.

On the girls' side, Audrey Dotson, a Bucknell-bound forward, left Langley as a sophomore for Flint Hill, where she has flourished the past two seasons. Talented freshmen teammates at South Lakes a year ago, Marlena Tremba and Zoe Beard-Fails both left for Paul VI Catholic and Georgetown Day, respectively. Third-ranked St. John's, which won Monday's Abe Pollin City Title game, lured away freshman Chania Ray from Edison.

"As I see things and how they've evolved, coaches have said that maybe the glory days of Northern Region basketball . . . they've sort of gone away," said Middleburg Academy Coach Gary Hall, who coached Herndon to a state runner-up finish in 2006. "It has become increasingly difficult for the public school coaches to keep the best kids at the public schools."

Not all players feel compelled to move. West Springfield junior Logan Battle discussed the possibility of attending Paul VI Catholic with her family in eighth grade, considering the move to gain exposure playing in the WCAC. But given West Springfield's academics, Battle's close friends there and a winning tradition under longtime Spartans Coach Bill Gibson, who won state titles in 1997 and 1999, she decided to stay put.

"I knew that we were going to have Gibson for a while, so that helped because I wouldn't be switching up coaches halfway through high school," said Battle, a Georgetown recruit.

Alie said that academics and basketball both factored into his reasons for leaving South County.

"I felt like I could play [college basketball] but not [Division] I if I stayed there," Alie said. "I didn't have many colleges looking at me, and this year there are more colleges looking at me. The main reason I made the transfer was to raise my grades, but basketball-wise there is more competition and more time to work on your game here."

Another reason coaches cite for the Northern Region's struggles in the state tournament is that development of year-round basketball teams and instruction in the rest of the state has caught up with this area.

"The rest of the state didn't have the year-round basketball programs that we had when I started," said former coach Dwight Trimmer, who began coaching at Fairfax in the late 1980s before stints at Mount Vernon, Herndon and Robinson, where he won titles in 1995 and 1996. "Now there's Boo Williams and all the teams down in the Roanoke area. That wasn't always the case."

The Northern Region restricts coaches from instructing out-of-season teams with more than one-third - roughly four kids - of their high school roster. Other regions often allow nearly entire high school rosters on AAU, fall and summer league teams as long as there is one player from another school. There are also limitations on instruction time, gym and equipment usage.

Coaches also fear that with a February rule change by the Virginia High School League regarding more lenient out-of-season practices, the Northern Region will again be more restrictive. And as a result, schools here will be at a disadvantage when they enter the state tournament.

"Some of the rules they put forth, they do so to make a level playing field but at times it puts us at a disadvantage against other opponents in the state," said Edison girls' Coach Dianne Lewis, who came close to ending the region's state title drought with back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2007. "I think if we have our own set of rules we should compete against ourselves or have the same set of rules as others."

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