Madness, but What Kind?
Area Plays Host To Controversial National Tourney
Friday, April 3, 2009; Page D01
Eddie Bonine, the chief of high school athletics in Nevada, was taken aback recently when he opened the letter from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The longtime Democratic senator from the Silver State congratulated Bonine for his "positive and unrelenting support of one of our state's newest premier athletic programs, Findlay College Prep."
Bonine was more than a little mystified. Findlay College Prep, with an enrollment of eight students -- all of whom play on the basketball team -- is the only high school entity in the state that is not a member of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, of which Bonine is executive director. As part of a deal brokered when the program was formed three years ago to be an elite basketball power while its players attended a small private school in suburban Las Vegas, organizers agreed to never enlist any player from the state. Further, Findlay is permitted to play only a limited number of games against teams from Nevada.
"I was kind of shocked when I got [the letter] to be honest," Bonine said. "As far as I'm concerned, they are not a traditional team in a high school setting. But I'm an old-school guy."
The old school and new school are colliding once again in the debate about the future of high school athletics, and this weekend's ESPN-sponsored National High School Invitational basketball tournament at Georgetown Prep serves as the latest flashpoint.
The eight-team boys' field offers plenty of insight into the discussion. Findlay, Oak Hill Academy of Mouth of Wilson, Va., and Montrose Christian, which finished No. 1 in The Post's final high school rankings, are among those vying for what some, like Montrose Christian Coach Stu Vetter, are calling a high school national championship. All three teams are independents, unaffiliated with any conference or league, free to recruit from nearly all over the globe and play as many games as they choose, wherever they choose.
"I truly believe this is the start of what people will look forward to each spring, just like March Madness," Vetter said. "This could be a mini-March Madness."
Not in the field are any public schools or, for that matter, any schools from the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, considered one of the most talent-rich high school leagues in the country and home to two schools -- DeMatha and Gonzaga -- ranked in ESPN's national top 10. WCAC principals overruled the league's coaches and banned its members from participating -- despite being asked twice by tournament promoters.
"The reaction of the principals, and it was a pretty uniform reaction, was that high school sports is the last pure amateur sport," WCAC Commissioner Jim Leary said. "The move to have a high school national championship, however you rank it, is a move away from keeping that pure amateur sport level. We just did not want to encourage this and participate."
Public schools are unable to participate in the event because of National Federation of State High School Associations guidelines, which are against national tournaments. Also, most state high school associations declare that the playing season ends with the state championship game and that schools may not participate in events that are not sponsored by an educational entity.
"I understand both sides of the issue, as someone who cares about sports and loves sports," DeMatha Principal Dan McMahon said. "But seasons need to come to an end. I don't think there is any need to find a national high school champion. We're not a college. We don't give scholarships. I don't see a need for us to go in that direction."
While coaches and players from DeMatha and Gonzaga will either have to buy a ticket or watch on television (every game will air live on one of the ESPN networks), Vetter is looking forward to "representing this area."
"It's just the product of our times . . . it's going to be exciting," said Vetter, whose team's top players include a center from the Republic of Benin in West Africa and a shooting guard who transferred before this school year from Portland, Ore. "High school basketball over the years has gotten bigger and bigger."