The Metro Conference, which includes area powers DeMatha, St. John's, Gonzaga and Ireton, has decided to add a third official to referee league basketball games this season, making it perhaps the only scholastic conference in the country to go to a three-man crew.

The league also has decided to adopt a college-style "box" to allow coaches to stand and walk in front of their benches during games, instead of following the new high school rule requiring coaches to be seated during games.

"We think we have the best high school league in the country, with the best teams and the best players, so why not give them the best officiating?" said DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten. "It's not that the officials didn't do as good a job as they could in the past, but two referees can only see so much and with players so much faster, stronger and bigger than in the past, that job just got tougher and tougher."

Two years ago, the Metro Conference experimented with a three-man referee crew in a playoff game between Carroll and DeMatha. This season all league games will be officiated by three referees.

"We'll evaluate the worth of using a three-man crew after the season. This is an experiment," said Metro Conference Commissioner J. Dallas Shirley, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NCAA basketball rules committee. "We'll evaluate whether the coaches and athletic directors are satisfied that the additional cost of an extra referee has produced a better-called game."

Previously, only some collegiate conferences have used three referees, so few referees have experience in a three-man crew. But Shirley, once a top official, downplays the on-the-job training for those unaccustomed to working with an extra referee and thinks that an extra official will help lessen each referee's load during games.

"Even though high school games are played on a court that is 10 feet shorter than college ball, there is still a signficant fatigue factor at the end of games for referees," he said. "Games are played end-line to end-line now and referees are asked to do an increasingly difficult job.

"Now with three referees, there should always be one man ahead of the play, even in transition and fast-break situations. Also, there was always a blind spot with a two-man crew, but since everything works off a triangle principle with three, that's eliminated."

Coaches are referees' most vociferous critics, but DeMatha's Wootten sees the three-man crew as lessening the strain.

"All referees do the best job they can and no one should fault them for that, but this should give everyone -- players, fans, coaches and referees -- a better chance to see games decided by the players. And when a game is decided by a key call at the end, at least we'll know that a referee was in the best position possible. There'll still be some judgment calls and certainly some disagreements, but as long as a referee is in the best possible position to make that call, what more can you ask?"