Four years ago, Marian Focke couldn't imagine having problems scheduling basketball games. National Cathedral School, the sister school to St. Albans, was known better for its long list of Who's Who in the academic world than for its success in the gym.
The private school played a rather weak schedule and was content with that. Competition was rather low key and athletic championships were not a high priority. They still aren't, but Focke has upgraded NCS to the level where other teams have decided to look elsewhere for opponents.
To gain much-needed experience, Focke has been searching for nonleague games. She hasn't had much luck as several school have backed out of home-and-home arrangements.
"Some schools we played last year canceled games this year," she said. "I just can't get games, it seems. We have an intelligent group of players, and this group is playing better than any group I've had."
Focke says NCS' basketball program has shown steady improvement in the last few years. "I can say we progressed quite a bit in the past four years," said Focke, who played at Immaculata High and in the AAU. "My assistant coach (Mariea Sabate) and I wanted to upgrade our program, and the kids began to take the game seriously. I know you have to build a program slowly and we wouldn't want to set the kids up for a diaster.
"We are still playing catchup as far as girls' basketball is concerned. A lot of girls learn the game in the CYO or a youth club. Many of our players don't begin playing until the eighth grade and it usually takes at least two solid years to teach the skills."
NCS is moving along nicely. Only a one-point loss to highly-regarded O'Connell has soiled its 12-1 record.
"We blew a five-point lead late in the game," Focke said. "Coaches' frustration day. Coaches take the blame for all the one-point losses and the credit for all the one-point victories."
This season, NCS has two victories over All Saints and one over Dunbar, but the school's biggest victory came a week ago. Focke and her much-improved team took a one-game lead in the Independent School Physical Education Association league after defeating defending champion Georgetown Visitation, 56-49. Last year, Visitation defeated NCS twice, by five and 10 points.
"We should have beaten Visitation (the second time in the tournament final) but our best player, JoJo Rein, broke her foot in the tournament semifinal game," Focke said. "This year, we are at full strength and they lost a few people."
Rein, a 6-foot-3 senior, is enjoying her finest season. She is averaging 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocked shots per game and usually sits out the fourth period of one-sided games. Meredith Binder, a 6-foot, four-year starter, is averaging 12 points and 12 rebounds. Yale-bound identical twins Melissa (12 points) and Margaret Boasberg handle the back-court duties.
"I have to be careful of the competition level," Focke said. "I just don't think it's fair to have a 6-3 and 6-foot player on the court when we are 28 points ahead.
"When we get those big leads, we have certain rules. There is no pressing or man-to-man defense, we shoot only from the outside, and then only when the 30-second clock runs down.
"Our season depends on the play of the four seniors. They have been together for a while and they played in the summer league for the first time the past summer. That really helped them."
NCS and Visitation are the overwhelming favorites to win the small private school league. This year, the athletic directors voted to change the name to the Independent School Athletic Association, but 12 of the 20 schools, looking for a more structured and competitive league, formed the Independent School League.
All 20 schools play one another and the top eight finishers (based on won-lost record) will compete in the Division A tournament playoffs. The bottom 12 schools will compete for Division B tournament honors.
"This way, everyone gets to participate," Focke said. "Some of the schools are much stronger than others."
Unless something unexpected happens this week in the post-season turnament, the strongest two NCS and Visiitation should meet in the tournament final. That would suit Focke and her players just fine.