One night earlier this month, the Capitol Christian Academy boys’ basketball team did something it will do only sporadically this season: It held a practice.
The nascent Christian high school in Landover will play more games than any other team in the Washington area this season as part of a strategy implemented by Coach Van Whitfield to attract more recruiting attention for his program.
Seventh-ranked Capitol Christian (26-5) is scheduled to play 44 regular season games this season — more than double what many public school systems allow — and is currently in the midst of a 78-day stretch that includes 39 games. The Washington Wizards will play 38 games during the same time span between Dec. 3 and Feb. 19.
“It’s almost like an NBA schedule,” senior Jordan Burgess said after this informal workout.
A number of high-profile prep schools play similarly grueling schedules, including nationally ranked Oak Hill (49 games scheduled this season), which annually sends top-flight recruits to major Division I college basketball programs. Locally, the Riverdale Baptist girls have traveled around the country for games, and in 2011-12 the Crusaders played 39 games.
Capitol Christian’s slate is the brainchild of Whitfield, a 54-year-old who has written novels and scripts for TV shows, barely survived a bout with swine flu three years ago and admitted, “I’ve been a lightning rod since I started coaching.”
Whitfield led the DC Storm AAU organization and spent seven seasons at Southern Maryland Christian, Progressive Christian and Princeton Day, where his usage of fifth-year and home-school players to compile gaudy records yielded high-level prospects and a dubious reputation.
He moved on to Capitol Christian, founded last year with three basketball teams (boys’ and girls’ varsity and boys’ junior varsity) and a student body of 60. But instead of emphasizing wins and losses, Whitfield’s latest attempt to build a boys’ basketball powerhouse centers on putting a hodgepodge of players in front of as many talent evaluators as possible.
“Schools our size typically don’t warrant the attention of college scouts,” said Whitfield, who is also Capitol Christian’s athletic director. “It’s worked. Literally every key player on the team has picked up significant college interest because we were playing and they were being seen.”
Capitol Christian began its season on Nov. 1 and played 14 games over the first 20 days of December, including two on the same day at separate showcase events in La Plata and in Brooklandville in Baltimore County on Dec. 20. The Warriors also have games in North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois this season.
Whitfield pointed out much of the condensed schedule occurred during the school’s holiday break and he planned a more “normalized” slate of games the rest of the year. But Capitol Christian will still play four games in five nights beginning this week. The first two weeks of February also feature stretches in which the team has three games in three days.
“Here,” senior Emmanuel Johnson said, “every game is a scholarship game.”
Twenty-one of the Warriors’ 44 scheduled games occur on weekdays, and it could play as many as seven additional games in the Capital Beltway League and Maryland private school postseason tournaments.
Capitol Christian plays its home games and holds practices at Jericho Christian Academy.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and Virginia High School League permit public school teams to play 22 regular season games. The District of Columbia State Athletic Association allows its high school basketball teams to play 26 regular season games. The MPSSAA only allows teams to play three basketball games in one week two times during a season. Capitol Christian will do it nine times this year.
Whether such a strategy has merit is up for debate.
“I think there is some value, but it’s purely exposure in recruiting,” said an ACC assistant coach who recruits the Washington area regularly. “It’s not development-based because you can’t get better playing  games in a row. How do you practice? Can you get  good games? That’s the other thing. Who are you playing?”
Thirteen of Capitol Christian’s 26 wins this year have come by at least 25 points, and the number of games it will play has rankled rivals. Though girls’ and boys’ basketball programs at private schools around the area traditionally play more games than their public school counterparts, Whitfield’s detractors say he has taken it to a new extreme.
Two officials at Capital Beltway League schools expressed concern over Whitfield’s scheduling practices since league members informally agreed their schedules would be similar to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which allows its basketball teams to play 28 regular season games each season.
National Christian Coach Trevor Brown said he “doesn’t like it academically,” although Whitfield insists every player on his roster made the first quarter honor roll at Capitol Christian this year. No other Capital Beltway team will play more than 37 regular season games this year.
“Most people think he’s a renegade,” said one league representative, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely about Whitfield. “Everyone’s eyes are on that situation.”
Whitfield coached 49 games two years ago at Princeton Day, when his team featured ballyhooed point guard Aquille Carr. Capitol Christian, which played 33 games last season, is an approved non-member of the MPSSAA, but the state has no jurisdiction to limit scheduling at private schools.
“Approved doesn’t mean they’re stamped and everything they do is okay with us,” MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks said. “We think there’s more to it than just playing games.”
But Capitol Christian President Evelyn Anderson said Whitfield’s vision for the basketball program lines up with the goals of a “college prep high school.”
“I wanted to make sure he was my coach and I knew I wanted to keep the lights on in the school. So our relationship works out really well,” Anderson said. “When they get ready for college, they’re going to have a lot of games where they’re going to have to get ready and do their work.”
This year’s team includes three Division I prospects from the Newport News, Va., area — leading scorer Chris Orlina, sophomore Devante Carter and freshman big man Nate Watson — and a foreign exchange student from Ghana who live with local host families. Seniors Kwame Camon and Jared Harrington transferred to Capitol Christian from West Potomac and Heritage Christian Academy, respectively. Johnson and Burgess commute from Aberdeen each morning. Only one player from last year’s team remains on the roster.
The National Athletic Trainers Association estimates 50 percent of the pediatric patients that visit sports medicine facilities today are dealing with overuse injuries, but Capitol Christian has managed to stay healthy, partly because Whitfield believes in practicing sparingly.
But he lives in constant pain, a reminder of when this scheduling philosophy took root.
“I’ve seen what the end of my life looks like and I want to be a harbinger for what their lives could be like,” he said. “Before I was very attached to the notion of winning. Now, I’m probably the exact opposite.”
Whitfield carries a sheet of paper with him at all times, detailing the four-month hospital stay and the more than 20 subsequent ailments he endured upon contracting the H1N1 virus on a trip to Alaska for a basketball tournament during the 2011-12 season.
For the past two seasons, Whitfield wouldn’t schedule a game on the day he stepped on the plane to Alaska (Jan. 16) and the day he had the first of two induced comas (Jan. 30). Capitol Christian lost to National Christian on Jan. 16, and he will have “an eerie feeling” Friday when it travels to York, Pa., for the fourth of four games in five nights.
“I don’t know who we play,” Whitfield said.