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Elite high school basketball is back to its cross-country-traveling, pre-pandemic self

As the sport returns, with tournaments such as one played at Sidwell Friends this week, it is clearer than ever how national the game has become

Gia Cooke and Bishop McNamara played a team from Texas during the Capital Invitational girls' basketball tournament Thursday at Sidwell Friends. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The DeSoto Eagles warmed up with a crowd looking on. Their game against Bishop McNamara wouldn’t start for another 45 minutes, but a few dozen people in the stands at Sidwell Friends watched the top-ranked girls’ program in the country go through layup lines.

DeSoto, located near Dallas, was one of five out-of-state programs that had come to Northwest Washington for the Capital Invitational, a one-day girls’ basketball event designed to pit some of the top programs in the D.C. area against celebrated foes from across the country. Joining them in making a long trip were teams from California, Florida, North Carolina and New York.

The event, one of many held across the region in the opening weeks of this winter season, was a clear indicator of how different this basketball season has been and will be from the last one. It was also a reminder of what normalcy now looks like in high school hoops.

“Great teams have to travel,” McNamara Coach Frank Oliver said. “Everyone wants to go and play championship-level teams, wherever they may be.”

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The coronavirus pandemic did not completely shut out the highest levels of high school basketball last winter. Many local private school programs found a way to get in work. Some took part in informal rec leagues, playing under pseudonymous club names but featuring essentially their varsity rosters. Others played as themselves and pieced together makeshift schedules against the programs in their conference that also were given the green light to play.

But missing were games such as those played Thursday at the two courts at Sidwell.

D.C.-area private schools have come to rely heavily upon travel during basketball season. For these talented teams to have a chance to achieve their goals, they must think of the sport on a national level. That means going to places as far as Hawaii, where No. 1 boys’ team Paul VI is headed this month, or inviting far-flung competitors to your backyard, which the Quakers did with Thursday’s event.

“Obviously the DMV has great basketball, so last year we were lucky enough to get some good games in,” Quakers guard Kiki Rice said. “But to now be able to play teams from across the country, it’s really exciting. It’s the competition you always want.”

Sidwell Coach Tamika Dudley said the event originated with her team looking to promote and host one high-quality game against an out-of-town opponent.

“It started like that, and then it ballooned into this massive event,” Dudley said. “We were looking for a great matchup, and then we just kept adding two teams at a time.”

The top-ranked Quakers were one of two local teams to score a victory. They defeated Christ the King (N.Y.) in front of a raucous home crowd. No. 4 Paul VI also earned a win, beating St. Mary’s (Calif.). No. 5 St. John’s lost to IMG Academy (Fla.), Riverdale Baptist lost to Winston Salem Christian (N.C.), and No. 3 McNamara fell to DeSoto.

On the boys’ side, there are several events planned for this weekend that feature an eclectic slate of national competitors. One of them is the Morgan Wootten Invitational, which will be held at Robinson High on Saturday.

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The event, which will collect used basketball sneakers before each of its four games and is partnering with the national kidney foundation, was organized by O’Connell Coach Joe Wootten to celebrate the legacy of his late father, Morgan, the legendary DeMatha coach. Joe Wootten said he had no problem attracting programs from Philadelphia, Baltimore and beyond.

“The travel aspect is important because it allows you to take stock of where the area stands,” Wootten said. “These events also attract college coaches because they get to see four or five really good teams in one day. So it’s a good way to promote the kids and generally grow interest in the game.”

While traveling may be the lifeblood of high-level high school basketball, it is still a risky proposition. Several area teams already have canceled games in this young season because of health and safety concerns, another sign that the threat of the pandemic is ever-present. That fact is especially true on the road.

“We’re going to be cautious during a pandemic,” Oliver said. “But some things have opened up, and people are vaccinated. So we want to go out there and let the kids play and get those experiences.”

The travel-heavy schedule dissipates in the new year as conference play takes over. By all accounts, that transition is at the crux of every decision to get on a plane and seek out an early-season challenge: Every team wants to be more prepared to beat its biggest rivals.

“The goal of putting together our schedule is to be ready for [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] play,” Oliver said in the bowels of the Sidwell athletic complex after his team’s game against DeSoto.

As he spoke, another WCAC powerhouse, the Paul VI Panthers, walked by on their way to play against St. Mary’s. Oliver greeted a few players and coaches.

“We just want to beat local teams like these guys,” the coach said with a laugh, pointing at the Panthers as they went. “That’s what this is all about.”

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