Is De Matha truly the No. 1 high school basketball team in the nation?
Pundits who have been weekend on the D.C. playgrounds and grown up believe Washington-area basketball is second to none will argue until the next Yuletide season that the Stags are tops.
Of course, it is virtually impossible to select a mythical national champion without raising a fuss, but according to the nation's top pollster in the high school ranks, Dave Krider of Basketball Weekly, and the majority of the "human computers (college recriters)" who lend their opinions freely, De Matha is the No. 1 school in the 50 states.
De Matha has been ranked first since Verbum Dei (Los Angeles) lost in mid-January," said Krider, sports editor of the Herald Argus in La Pointe, Ind., in addition to handling the high school poll for the Basketball Weekly. "De Matha has the coach, the good players and plays a tough schedule. Above all, they have a winning tradition.
"Man for man, Verbum Dei has better individuals. Their top eight players will go major college," said Krider. "But De Matha has a different system and emphasies teamwork. When I saw Morgan (Wootten last year, he said don't hank him too high. I told him I wouldn't rank him any higher than second."
The Stags (24-0) have plenty of ammunition to argue their case with the likes of Lockport Central, Ill. (29-0); Mount Vernon, N.Y. (20-0); Verbum Dei (27-2), and West Philadelphia (25-1), the Weekly's no. 2, 3, 4 and 5 teams.
Despite having no intimidator as tall as 6-foot-9, the Stags have rarely been outrebounded or outplayed inside. They are shooting better than 50 percent from the floor in averaging 86 points per game. Their quickness and excellent man-to-man pressure has resulted in countless turnovers.
It is a rare team that can go nine or 10 deep and still be effective. De Matha can do better than that Senior starters Joe Washington, Dutch Morley, Chris Gildea, Paul DeVito and Charles Branch crank up the Stag machine before Sidney Lowe, Derek Whittenburg, Percy White, John Carrol, Mark Bruce, Tony Washington and Mike O'Driscoll come in to step on the gas. Count 'em, . . . 12
"A lot of teams like Verbum Dei and West Philadelphia have one or two great players," said All-Met forward Branch who has seen those teams play. "But we have many great ones, so many. When we take a rest, we know someone else will do the job. The score might be worse when we get back in."
De Matha has beaten top teams in North and South Carolina, Kentuck, Pennsylvania and New York in addition to Metro Conference rivals St. John's and Mackin twice each and the Interhigh League's finest, Dunbar, two weeks ago in the city championship game, 63-55, before more than 12,500 at Cole Field House.
The Hayattsville, Md. Catholic School student body, totaling fewer than 900 boys, is walking on a cloud following a story on the team in Time magazine this week. Many of the students have copies in their briefcases and for those who don't there are xeroxed copies on every bulletin board in the school.
"You wouldn't believe the calls we've gotten since that article," said Wootten, who has been featured on national television during halftime of professional and college games. "Now everybody wants to play us. We've got offers to go to Alabama, Mississippi, Florda next year. We've got letters to conduct clinics in Trinidad and perhaps in Red China this summer."
Unfortunately, the one matchup that would have gone a long way toward settling a few arguments didn't come off. De Matha and Verbum Dei tried all season to schedule a game but couldn't some up with a date.
The closest they came was participating in a doubleheader in Kentucky in December. They beat two Kentucky teams but did not meet each other.
"We weren't that impressed with them. Maybe they were a little over-confident," said Lowe. "I'm sure they're better than they showed."
Verbum Dei first-year Coach Eli Hawthorne admitted his team was not up to par that night. He also has toned down his cry that his team should be ranked first after losing a second game.
"I don't take much stock in rankings sometimes," said Hawthorne. "They can be superficial."
"I would love to play De Matha. I watched them and I was surprised they didn't have a big man," said Hawthorne. "We'd have an advantage on the boards but might have trouble matching up at guard. We run the UCLA offense and press all game.We love to run but we can slow it up, too. Still, there's no way to prove it unless we play."
Wootten agrees that his team, with only Gildea, White and Bruce 6-5 or taller, would have problem keeping Hawthorne's front-line players off the boards.
"It would come down to the question of whether we could wear them down," said Wootten. "They're much bigger and stronger inside than we are."
Most of the De Matha players said emphatically the Verbum Deis, Lockport Centrals and Mount Vernons are ranked where they belong.
De Matha will end its season this weekend at the Alhambra Tournament in Cumberland. If De Matha wins, it will mark the first undefeated season in Wootten's 22 years of coaching. The Stags' 1965 team was unbeaten in high school competition but lost to the University of Maryland freshman by a point.
DeMatha receives nearly 100 letters a day from colleges and the players drop by during the day to pick up their individual mail.
Although Branch didn't have any letters yesterday the team's leading scorer (15.0 points per game) has received more than 300. Morley picked up five more yesterday to take his total above 200.
O'Driscoll, a spot player at guard, is the first De Matha player to accept a full scholarship this season, signing with Wofford (S.C.) College yesterday.
While Wootten is enjoying the publicity, he can't help but look forward to next season.
"If I thought I'd leave before coaching Lowe, White and Whittenburg in their senior years, I'd cry," he said. "And we had a 23-1 junior varsity and a 23-0 freshman team.
"But we haven't finished No. 1 yet. We still have three games left. Anything can happen."