It's showcase time in hig school basketball - a chance for 12 of Virginia's finest players to impress college scouts with their shooting eyes, quick steps and power under the boards.
The Northern Virginia All-Stars will compete against their D.C. and Maryland counterparts during the next week in games designed to attract the attention of college scouts from around the nation. The climax will come next Thursday night when the Virginia and Maryland All-Stars play a team of private and Interhigh All-Stars in the preliminary to the Capital Classic game, which annually pits the U.S. All-Stars against the Metro All-Stars.
In the preliminary, the stakes are high - the chance for a free education via college scholarship, which, by the way, would give a much needed boost to Virginia's basketball reputation. But so are the pressures - the fear that a missed shot or a clumsy move will turn the scouts sour.
Although the Capital Classic is considered the "big game" in the public's eye, area high school coaches claim collegecoaches pay closer attention to the preliminary.
"Players in the Classic all have offers already," says Fred Jenkins, coach at Woodson High School. "The kids in the preliminary are looking for offers, and the college coaches are looking for people who can play for them. A lot of these coaches aren't from major schools. They're from mid-sized colleges with programs just right for players in the preliminary game."
The Virginia All-Stars hope to improve the reputation of Virginia high school basketball in the games against Maryland tonight at St. John's and in the preliminary to the Capital Classic.
"We have 10 balls players here as good as any in the Interhigh League or Metro Conference," Jenkins says. "But not many players on the Virginia has not been as high as in other parts of the Metropolitan area.
"What killed us was the building of so many schools a few years ago," Jenkins says. "School boundaries were being shifted and the size of school kept changing, so it was hard to establish a consistent program.
"As the secondary schools level to between 2,000 and 2,400 students, programs will become more established, and the level of competition with improve. In five years or so, Northern Virginia schools will be beating anybody - DeMatha, Dunbar, you name it."
Jenkins has been participating in area basketball for 25 years, going back to his days as a player at Mount Vernon High School. He has been head coach at Woodson for 16 years and before that was an assistant at Annandale for three years and at Gonzaga for one year. He believes "basketball in Northern Virginia is about to blossom. I see kids in the seventh and eighth grades right now who can downright play."
Jenkins' optimism is not shared by everyone who watches Northern Virginia basketball. After seeing the Virginia All-Stars in a recent workout, one observer, affiliated with a local university, says, "There are a few good players out there, but I don't think there's much Division I (major college) material. You know, Northern Virginia is not considered a basketball hotbed. Look at the record. How many Virginia players stand out at Division I schools?" For that matter, how many are carrying a small college team?"
Perhaps that reputation is the reason only two Virginia players - Billy Fields of Osbourne Park and Greg Dennis, an All Met selection from Robinson - have drawn serious attention from college scouts this year.
Fields has been contacted by about 45 schools, not an unusually high number considering that a strong 6-foot-4 player whose average of 38 points per game was tops in the Washington area this season. Fields has not attracted more attention, according to high school and college coaches, because his losing dependent team rarely played against top area competition.
"If he had played tough, hard ball clubs all year," Jenkins says, "he'd be a major college ballplayer. He can shoot and rebound, but he didn't get the attention.
Dennis, who will play in the Classic against the U.S. All-Stars, is in a slightly different situation than his Virginia counterparts. Several Ivy League schools want him and he has had concrete offers from Randolph-Macon and Western Carolina.
"To me, the game means a chance to improve my basketball future," Dennis says. "I'm disappointed that Willian and Mary (College) hasn't been to talk to me lately. They were in touch and said they'd call me again this week, but they didn't. If they made an offer, I'd probably take it.
"At least I know that if I don't play well (in the Classic), it doesn't mean there goes my basketball future."
The All-Star games mean more to players like Langley's Doug Newburg. Wakefield's Tony Roberts, T. C. Williams' Mike Nelson, and several others.
"Watch those coaches take notice if a guard like Newburg gets loose on a breakway and goes up and stuffs the ball like he can," Jenkins says. "Doug has just about everything a coach could want in a guard - quickness, strength, plus the ability to go up over the top and throw the ball through.
"Tony Roberts has a quick stop-and-go move and a good shot. Give a player like him a year in a junior college and he'll be playing major college ball."
Nelson, a small, steady guard, is a long-shot college prospect who has not heard from any colleges yet. "I worked hard all season for something like these All-Star games," he says. "I know I'll have to go out and show that I can play team ball and good defense."
What if an offer still doesn't come?
"If I don't get an offer," he says with conviction, "I'll go to them and show them what I can do as a walk-on."