"I can remember when Northern Virginia had nothing," said Potomac basketball Coach Ron Hart, when asked to assess the area's overall talent this year. "They never had anybody who can play like the kids they've got over there now."
Many area high school and college coaches are in agreement that Northern Virginia basketball has improved dramatically over the last five years.
Once only one or two teams would dare cross the Potomac to take on a De Matha, St. John's or Dunbar. Now at least seven or eight schools have programs comparable to the traditional area powers.
"People are taking the game more seriously over here," said Red Jenkins, dean of Virginia coaches in his 20th year at W. T. Woodson. "I don't know if the Maryland or Interhigh ball is on the decline but Virginia is coming. There are little kids out here that can play as well as the city (D.C.) kids. For years it was the other way around."
Northern Virginia has more than held its own against non-Virginia competition, winning 11 of 23 games. And, that statistic is deceiving because seven of the victories posted by District and Maryland schools were against Virginia teams with woeful records.
"It's evening up a little. A lot of the city kids are moving to the suburbs and the kids we would ordinarily have gotten are playing against us," said Coolidge Coach Frank Williams, whose team was defeated by Mount Vernon, 85-77, in the final of the Mount Vernon Holiday tournament.
"I'm not surprised Northern Virginia basketball has improved. The kids are fundamentally sound, they go to camps and they have started to come in town and compete in the summer leagues.
"One Virginia coach told me after I beat him, the loss could only help his team," Williams said. "They have some good players out there."
If an all-star game matching the area jurisdictions against one another were scheduled today, the Virginia coaches feel a team of Woodson's Pete Holbert, Robinson's Mike Tissaw, O'Connell's Kevin Darmody, Gar-Field's Mike Williams, McLean's Rich Wilson, Groveton's Keith Wilder, Stuart's Fernando Aunon, T. C. Williams' Mark Jackson and Arnie Russell, Hayfield's Craig Foreman, Jefferson's Tim Danehower and Mount Vernon's Junior Brown and Eric Sellers could hold its own.
"When was the last time we've had five major college prospects? This is a rare year for big people out here," said Jenkins. "I foresee it getting even better. Marshall has a kid, Tim Kearney (6-foot-8) who'll be 7 feet next year. I don't know if we'll ever be even with the Metro Conference because it's consistently super. But we've got a few teams out here that can play with anyone."
Much of the credit for Virginia's growing success is the infectious enthusiasm of the area's many new coaches.
The Oliverio brothers, Gabe and Dave, both played at Woodson, then came back to work as jayvee coaches in Fairfax County before getting head jobs. Gabe Oliverio, in his second year, has coached Stuart to a 13-4 mark in the tough Potomac District. Dave is outdoing his older brother, having coached Marshall to a 13-3 mark and first place in the Great Falls District in his first season.
Other first-year coaches doing well are Chantilly's Pete DeHaven, McLean's Bill Kagarise and Edison's Dave Muniz. Hayfield Coach Bobby Harris and Washington-Lee's Ed Walowac have been around awhile in other coaching positions but are getting their first exposure to the varsity competition.
"The coaching is getting better but we also have more fine players," said Robinson Coach Roscoe Dean, who came within two points of winning the Virginia AAA State title last year. "You used to have a few good teams and a lot of bad ones. We have much more balance now. I think we could take five and play a five anywhere in this area."
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said he has never felt Northern Virginia was lacking in talent.
"They've always played excellent basketball," said Driesell. "I don't think you can put a label on an area and say they play good or bad basketball."