Eight years after Virginia AA schools moved their girls basketball season to the fall, the sport still is operating in relative obscurity.
In 1975, AA schools switched their girls basketball season from the traditional winter schedule to the fall with practice now beginning in mid-August. The reason, as far as anybody can tell, is lack of gym space.
"Gym space is the biggest reason," said Handley Coach Brenda Neal. "You'll find that the smaller the school, the less space there is to practice."
Handley has 923 students for four grades.
"The reason has got to be gym space," agreed Osbourn Coach Anne Yeatts. "In AA schools there's usually only one gym. In the winter there's gymnastics, boys basketball and wrestling. There's just not enough space."
Abundant practice time seems to be the only positive effect from the move for the players, though; they appear to lose on all other counts.
In an area where football, at any competitive level, is king, girls basketball must battle for recognition. Coaches speak of losing players to soccer, volleyball at Osbourn Park, and cross country, but it is football that lures the crowds, receives the press coverage and generates the excitement.
On Sept. 8, the night of the Handley-Osbourn girls basketball game, no lines formed at the door and parking spaces were plentiful. There were perhaps 100 people inside the gym once the varsity match began, and that included a half-dozen players from an opposing team scouting the match, four cheerleaders and an announcer who previewed the starting lineups and then left.
"Handley usually draws big crowds, they've got a lot of parent support," said Yeatts. "But lack of crowds is a problem. Once you've established yourself as a winning team, people will probably come out, but you'll have to make waves for it to happen.
"It has affected the crowds the same as summer football does. Why play basketball now?"
"I don't think there's been a bad effect on the game," said Steuart Allen, Handley's track coach working the gate that evening. "On the contrary, they probably get more people to come, but they probably don't get as much publicity outside the school as they should get."
Although a general consensus may not exist about the effect the schedule has had on the sport, the effect of this season's heat on the players is agreed to be less than beneficial, especially during the current heat wave. At game time, 7:30, despite the lack of a thermometer in the gym, 85 degrees was a realistically low estimate.
That may have been one of the reasons for the less-than-commendable play that evening at Handley, where the Judges, a team with only two seniors in their starting lineup, beat Osbourn, a team starting only one senior, 51-44.
"It was a very sloppy ball game, we were both really embarrassed," said Yeatts, also speaking for Neal. "No one really won, we just had a loser."
Adversity is said to build character, though, and that can certainly be accepted as fact among the fall basketball participants. Both coaches have managed to succeed despite inexperience and lack of numbers. Neal's squad went 21-4 last year, losing to Osbourn Park by two points on a last-second shot in the districts. The three prior years, Handley was the reigning district champion.
Yeatts' girls, whom she brought up with her from the junior varsity, were 15-0 last year and 16-4 the year before that.
"Overall our region (Region II) is one of the strongest regions in girls basketball," said Neal. "It's good competition for the championships because when you get to the states, we're pretty well ready."
Neal added that in years past her squads could have competed with the best of the AAA teams. This year, inexperience has caused her to temper her predictions.
"The game down here isn't as big as I'd like it," said Neal. "Before, some of the girls would come up through the little leagues, they had the skill. But now, since we're not dealing with girls who played since they could walk, my ninth graders have to develop their skill, it has to be worked at."
"I like to keep a small team," said Yeatts, "but the problem is, we've got small numbers trying out. I want 30 girls trying out for JV and then eliminate down to 15. I want 20 to 25 trying out for varsity, but it's just not happening."