Northern Virginia basketball fans no longer have to cross the river to see excellent summer league action. The city game has moved to the suburbs and, at St. Stephen's School, basketball is being played with the talent and intensity to rival the more established summer leagues in the District.
Last week, the St. Stephen's Summer League opened its second season and, despite the suffocating heat and empty stands in Goodwin Gymnasium, the players went at each other with mid-January intensity. The games quickly became high school basketball, pro style. It is end-to-end action with few whistles, lots of scoring and plenty of sweating.
Virginia referee Rick Eskin admits the officiating is not as tight as in the winter.
"We keep it loose intentionally," Eskin said. "There's more teaching going on and we want to give the coaches a chance to coach."
The league was formed last summer to fill a void in Northern Virginia basketball. Previously, high school teams wishing to participate in a highly competitive summer program had to ride into Washington to the Sidwell Friends or Jelleff leagues.
Last spring, St. Stephen's basketball coach Win Palmer and his staff set out to determine the feasibility of a Northern Virginia summer league.
"It just didn't make sense to have to go across the river when there is so much basketball talent right here," said Palmer.
Within a week, Palmer had enough teams committed to begin the inaugural season. Now, with only one full season of experience, he believes the league stands up against the more established programs.
"I feel we have the best talent of all the leagues," Palmer said. Along with his Saints, the league includes perennial Virginia powers Robinson, Mount Vernon, T.C. Williams and Lake Braddock. O'Connell, Paul VI and Bishop Ireton represent the private leagues and eight other Virginia AAA schools round out the 16-team league, including defending champion Herndon.
Although several of these schools participate in more than one summer league, Palmer has instituted a "best player" rule to ensure the highly competitive nature of the league. In the event that a team's schedule conflicts with another league it is required to send the best players to the St. Stephen's game. If a team spreads itself thin, it faces possible league expulsion.
St. Stephen's teams are divided into two divisions, each playing its own division teams once and four teams from the other division. The top four teams in each division advance to the league tournament, which begins July 29. An all-star game will be played July 18 to highlight some of the best players in the program.
Meanwhile, the Fairfax County Department of Recreation has begun another season of its summer basketball schedule and, although it is not as competitive as the St. Stephen's League, it provides area players a chance to play in a more relaxed atmosphere.
Not restricted to high school teams, the county runs 18-and-under boys and girls leagues and a 15-and-under boys league. Teams are organized with the help of area sponsors and participate in a 10-game schedule. The boys play games at Fairfax High and the girls play at W.T. Woodson.
Program director Betty Powell said she feels the Fairfax leagues are a chance for a player to "play, improve and practice."
And, because they don't keep statistics or records, "it's still fun."