When Chris Heiser first glanced at his Brentsville boys basketball schedule this season, it did not take long for him to find the dates that most interested him. After all, the Tigers' only true rival is Manassas Park. And that exclusive relationship is just fine with the senior forward.
"I like having the one team so you can really look forward to it and have that one team on your schedule highlighted: This is the game we have to win, and we have to win big," said Heiser, who was not alone in his thinking Monday night after his team's 60-44 victory over Manassas Park.
"It would be nice maybe to have [an additional rival], but I kind of like it the way it is," said Brentsville senior guard Justin Thomas, who led the Tigers with 19 points Monday. "It's a lot bigger than say Osbourn-Osbourn Park because you have Osbourn-Stonewall next week. So that might not be as big."
"Anything these two schools do against each other brings out most of the people," said Manassas Park Coach Jon Mamon, who was part of what he considered a sizable crowd at a volleyball match between the schools last week. "It's a good, healthy thing for high schools to have."
The rivalry between Brentsville and Manassas Park--both consider Falls Church school George Mason a secondary rival--is just one example of how the two local Virginia A schools differ from the AAA schools in the area. Sometimes those differences are positive and negative all at the same time.
Because the Bull Run District is so spread out, Brentsville and Manassas Park tend not to have steady support on the road. That can be discouraging. The larger schools in the area are about 30 minutes at most from their Cardinal District rivals.
"It would be nice to have some things a little bit closer," Mamon said. "But for a single-A school in a metropolitan area, that's the way things go."
The upshot is that players at the Virginia A schools might get to play in an atmosphere not found among the larger schools in the area.
"When you go to certain places like Strasburg that are really little, it's 'hometown,' so sometimes you're playing against [the fans], as well," said Thomas, adding he thinks teams' playing styles also vary more in the Bull Run than in the Cardinal. "It's a lot to play against sometimes. It can get mentally straining more than physically."
"You go to Strasburg, and you're playing teams that are like [the movie] 'Varsity Blues,' " Heiser said. "Everybody's not in the town, they're at the game."
Brentsville boys basketball coach Doug Poppe, who for the three seasons before this one coached the Osbourn Park girls, is relishing the small school flavor.
"I went to a couple games last year with Central and Strasburg," he said. "It was unbelievable. A little tiny gym, a 'Hoosiers' type atmosphere. The triple-A schools are so big, and the gyms are so huge, that you don't fill the stands and it just doesn't sound like as many people."
Poppe said the gyms also are less homogenized among the smaller schools, which adds to the challenge of playing away games.
"In triple-A, winning on the road is pretty good, but Woodbridge is playing in the same exact gym [layout] at Gar-Field that they practice in," Poppe said. "What's the home-court advantage besides a couple more people in the crowd? Osbourn Park-Stonewall. It's the same gym.
"Nobody has a gym like [Brentsville], nobody has a gym like Strasburg, nobody has a gym like Manassas Park. It's all different gyms. It's fun."
Poppe, who besides coaching has worked as a basketball official, also thinks A games tend to be more intense because, at the smaller schools, most of the better athletes play the main sports, whereas athletes might tend to specialize more at larger schools.
If Brentsville moves to AA in a few years, as Poppe expects, that could detract from the Manassas Park rivalry. But for now, the schools are still entwined in a competitive marriage of sorts.
"Thank goodness for this," Mamon said, scanning the Brentsville gym after the game Monday night. "This is what keeps things healthy for both schools."
CAPTION: With B.J. Treuting defending, Brentsville's Chris Heiser (2) eyes the basket during 64-47 win Dec. 17 against Bull Run District arch rival Manassas Park.