The Northwestern High School boys' basketball team, the defending Maryland 4A champion, has been barred from postseason play and its new coach has been suspended for the upcoming season after an infractions committee found that the team had violated state rules for the third consecutive year.

The sanctions -- labeled a "death penalty" by Northwestern's principal -- were levied after a Prince George's County athletic infractions committee determined that Northwestern had practiced this past Saturday, two days before Maryland public schools were allowed to begin preseason training sessions.

"The committee felt it was time to make somebody, somewhere accountable," said Friendly High Athletic Director Pat Harris-Paxson, who chaired the infractions committee at a hearing on Monday. "The school continues to break rules year in and year out for three years. They've been caught three years in a row."

The postseason ban is believed to be one of the harshest penalties ever in Maryland public high school athletics. Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said he remembered a wrestling team more than 20 years ago being declared ineligible for team postseason awards, although individual wrestlers were allowed to continue competing.

"It's not unheard of, but it's not very common," Sparks said. "It's a tough penalty."

Northwestern also will have to forfeit its season-opening game Dec. 7 against Suitland -- though the game still will be played -- and Coach Gary Lampkins, the former Dunbar High coach who was hired Nov. 8, was issued a letter of censure, Prince George's supervisor of athletics Earl Hawkins said. Northwestern Principal Jerome Thomas appealed the ruling Tuesday, sending a letter to Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby.

According to Lampkins's attorney, Stan Brown, Saturday's session was an open gym that had been approved by Northwestern Athletic Director Addison Shepard. Lampkins was on the court during the session to officiate and call fouls, but did not provide instruction, Brown said.

Prince George's County rules prohibit holding open gyms on weekends or with coaches providing instruction, but Hawkins said an assistant coach was on the court during the session, as well.

"The committee felt there probably was some instruction going on, so we considered it a practice, which is a violation of state rules," Hawkins said.

Shepard declined to comment yesterday. Lampkins yesterday said he felt Hawkins had neglected to provide him with proper training for his new position. He referred all other inquiries to Brown.

Because Lampkins was not hired until earlier this month, he missed a county-wide meeting of winter athletic coaches during which Hawkins reviewed rules and regulations. "How in the world do you . . . suspend him for a whole year and make them forfeit a game and suspend them from postseason play when you don't give a coach, after six days, any instruction, and as soon as he hits a landmine you're out of here," Brown said. "It's ridiculous they took this drastic position."

Hawkins declined to comment on Lampkins's comments.

Brown said Lampkins was provided a handbook of rules and regulations on Monday, when Lampkins was informed that he had broken a rule and would have a hearing in front of a committee.

Attempts to reach Thomas yesterday were unsuccessful. His appeal to Hornsby stated that Shepard "should have known" that open gyms were not allowed on weekends.

"It is our contention that this violation was not done with malicious intent, and the judgment of the panel far exceeds the offense," Thomas wrote, adding that he thought other infractions of a similar nature had received lighter punishments.

"We hope that you will understand that the panel's ruling is in effect a 'death penalty' for the boys' basketball program."

Two years ago, Northwestern had to forfeit a game and former coach Tony Dickens was suspended from coaching for 10 days after it was learned that the Wildcats had practiced on a snow day. Last season, Northwestern forfeited a victory and Dickens was issued a letter of censure for using an ineligible player.

After a slow start and a 12-9 regular season last winter, the Wildcats claimed the state title in Maryland's largest classification, defeating Springbrook in the championship game.