Late last month, Anacostia High girls basketball coach Frank Briscoe was getting desperate. With the start of the season less than two weeks away, he needed opponents for five empty slots on his schedule. Three D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association teams--M.M. Washington, Bell and Phelps--were scratched from games because they didn't have enough players to field teams.
So Briscoe started working the phones, dialing area coaches. It took some work, but he finally completed the task with conference rivals Coolidge, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (already on the Indians' schedule once) each agreeing to play Anacostia one more time. Briscoe also scheduled games with two schools from Baltimore.
But Briscoe, in his 20th season at the Southeast school, said he didn't even attempt to schedule games with some of the region's top public and private schools. He said he has grown frustrated with the excuses he has heard from some colleagues about why they won't play Anacostia.
"I felt comfortable going back to coaches in our league because they don't mind coming to us," he said. "The problem with some of the public and private schools is they will play you as long as you're not strong. But the moment that you become strong, they will drop you."
Enter the complicated world of scheduling, a difficult process governed as much by rules limiting the number of games schools can play as it is by the individual whims of coaches. Games fans might want to see--Oxon Hill's top-ranked boys against No. 5 South Lakes, for example--often fall apart because coaches haggle over how best to protect a school's unbeaten record, a weak squad of players or a spot in the top 20.
One thing is certain: Scheduling isn't easy. "It has become more difficult," said Patti Langworthy, coach of the St. John's girls team and a scheduler for public schools in Montgomery County. "There are a lot of factors that go into putting together a schedule. It can depend on a school's enrollment, the number of holiday tournaments teams play and the league schedule."
For instance, Langworthy explained that under state rules, Montgomery County schools can play only 22 games a season, including holiday tournaments (many of which start Monday). Once the teams play their conference opponents, coaches can be left with as few as three available dates. The DCIAA also has a 22-game limit but has the provision that tournaments--no matter how far a team advances--count as only one game.
Langworthy said this season she wanted to play Mount Vernon, one of the top teams in Northern Virginia. But neither Langworthy nor Mount Vernon Coach Kenny Farmer could work out a date, especially with Virginia High School League rules that limit teams to 18 games and one tournament (or two nonleague games).
"For him to have played me would have meant under Virginia rules he would have had to drop someone from his schedule," she said. "So we settled for a scrimmage."
Too Good to Play
Some teams avoid playing elite teams. Stu Vetter, the new boys coach at Montrose Christian Academy, said that he likes his team to play nationally ranked teams.
"We don't duck anybody," he said before his team departed for an eight-day trip to Hawaii, where the Mustangs were scheduled to play national powers Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Dominguez (Compton, Calif.).
"I think we have a competitive schedule. I took the job in the early summer, and the schedule was pretty much set. Montrose has improved their schedule drastically over the past several years."
Sometimes, league rules allow coaches the choice of whether to play teams in another division. That does not mean such games materialize. This year, Spingarn's boys team, which plays in the DCIAA East, will not play West rival Dunbar. Not only would such a game provide strong competition for the players, it would draw large crowds and help raise money for both schools' athletic programs.
Dunbar Coach Gary Lampkins said he has his reasons why the teams won't meet this regular season: Spingarn Coach Doc Robinson "is attempting to win and he has a strategy. I have a different one. I can respect that. If Dunbar does what it's suppose to do, then we're going to play them eventually in the [DCIAA] championship."
Spingarn dropped the game from its schedule because Dunbar refused to play at the Green Wave's gym, Robinson said. In the past, Robinson said the highly anticipated matchup has been played at Dunbar, and that it's Spingarn's turn to receive the revenue generated by gate receipts and concessions.
The game "is always to [Dunbar's] advantage," Robinson said. "When are they coming to us? We went to Carroll last year and the place was so packed you couldn't get into it. This year, they came to us" on Dec. 3, a 79-72 Spingarn victory.
Even when public and private schools manage to set up such games, they can unravel over contracts. This month, Spingarn pulled out of a scheduled game against Paul VI Catholic at its gym in Fairfax. Robinson said he made an oral agreement with Paul VI Coach Red Jenkins to play the game but had not signed or submitted a contract as required under DCIAA rules.
As the game neared, Robinson balked at playing in the smaller gym at Paul VI. But Jenkins said the school wasn't willing to pay for playing the game at another site. So, the game was canceled. A later date with Gwynn Park, one of the top teams in Prince George's County, was canceled last Tuesday for similar reasons.
Smaller schools that don't play in specific leagues, known as independents, often have a tougher time putting together schedules. Independents have no conference rules that dictate which teams they must play. Some independent coaches argue that the top-notch area schools avoid playing them, especially when their teams are strong.
"Two or three years ago, when its players were freshmen and sophomores, Riverdale Baptist was a weak and mediocre team," said Keith Lynch, who coaches Riverdale's third-ranked girls team. "They were playing the powerhouses in the area. Now, we're juniors and seniors and the pendulum is swinging the other way. The powers that used to beat up on [the Crusaders] won't give them the same courtesy of playing against them. The reason that we want to play the area's top teams is not just because we're good, but it's good for the kids as far as giving them exposure. It's also good because the community wants to see these games."
Lynch said one school that refused to play Riverdale Baptist this season is St. John's. He said the school didn't return several phone calls seeking a matchup. St. John's Langworthy denies the charge and said Lynch didn't return phone calls she made to him.
Some public school coaches' desire to play private powerhouses is tempered because private schools can lure top players with scholarships, ostensibly need-based. Gaithersburg boys coach Paul Foringer said, "We'll scrimmage [top private teams], but I won't put them on my schedule. It's not a level playing field."
The private schools recruit "while I have to take what walks through the door," he said.
To avoid such scheduling hassles, Grace Brethren this year joined the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference. All of the school's boys and girls athletic teams, except softball, will play a league schedule, said Steven Schools, the school's athletic director. As an independent, he said, "We were everybody's nonleague games. We'd get calls from teams that they couldn't play us because they have league games or something. That can be frustrating."
But not all public schools view independents as easy wins. Fred Swick, Poolesville's girls coach, said he plays those teams because they are on the same competitive level as his team. Poolesville is the only 1A team in Montgomery County's 3A/2A/1A league and often is overpowered by teams at some of the larger schools, Swick said.
"I'm looking for schools that are compatible with us," Swick said. "I'd even like to play some of the smaller schools in Frederick and Howard counties, but after they play their league games, they don't have many open dates."