DeMatha removed the interim tag from basketball coach Mike Jones's title yesterday, ending months of speculation about who would succeed Morgan Wootten on a permanent basis.

Jones, who directed the Stags to a 15-17 record after taking over the program on a temporary basis last November when Wootten retired, was picked over fellow DeMatha alum and current Bullis coach Mike Hibbs and former Dunbar coach Gary Lampkins.

"I'm not surprised, but I'm definitely relieved," said Jones, a 1991 DeMatha graduate and star player under Wootten. "I just let out a big sigh of relief when I found out this morning. Now we can put this behind us and start focusing on basketball and getting this thing going in the direction we need to be going."

It was not an easy decision for school administrators. DeMatha received 11 applications for the job, arguably the nation's highest-profile high school coaching position. But only Jones, Hibbs and Lampkins were extended interviews. In recent weeks, Jones, 29, and Hibbs (DeMatha 1980) emerged as the front-runners because of their ties to DeMatha and their teaching experience. But Jones had two key advantages -- he is employed as director of admissions and a psychology teacher, and he had the support of Wootten.

"I don't think a high school in the country could have had a tougher decision," Principal Dan McMahon said. "Mike Jones is a terrific choice for several reasons. For one, he is already here and there is going to a certain continuity because of that. I would say that gave him a leg up on the other candidates. The players already know him and respect him."

Wootten, who retired Nov. 6 after 46 seasons, 1,274 victories and 33 Catholic league championships, was "thrilled" when he found out that Jones, a former player and top assistant for four years, would be his successor.

"The four-year odyssey is finally over," Wootten said. "They made the right decision. There were a couple of great candidates. Mike deserves more than one year. He'll put some stability back in the program and get it headed in the right direction."

Last season, the Stags, who had only two senior starters, suffered six more losses than Wootten had in his worst season (17-11 in 1957-58). But DeMatha finished strong in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament, stunning rival O'Connell in the quarterfinals and coming up three points short of a trip to the championship game.

Twelve players who spent some time on the varsity team last season will be back next year, including Joe Palumbo, Mamadi Diane and Desmond Adedeji.

"The players are all really happy right now," Diane said. "It was the fair thing to do because one year isn't a lot of time. A lot of guys were worried about what was going to go down around here. But now that we have our answer, we can put all of the distractions behind us and get ready for next season."