Old Owlette, new roost Gus Grason: The former Towson Catholic girls coach has lost none of the verve that led to three "national" titles. But now the lopsided scores are coming in rec leagues, and his children are among his players.

March 18, 1997|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

One minute into the basketball game, the coach has deciphered the enemy. "Time! Time!" Gus Grason cries, scribbling plays. His hand flies over the clipboard, leaving squiggles that would baffle John Madden, much less a group of preteen girls at a rec league game in northern Baltimore County.

"They've got a half-court trap Tara, drive into the gap from the left reverse the ball to Jess are you OK on the shifts? I want your hand in that girl's face!"

Players nod. The squiggles make sense; three quick baskets follow. The girls are rolling, then

"Time!" Grason cries, pen in hand. "That's excellent basketball. Now, let me retool the offense "

The margin doubles, triples. Grason tinkers, triumphs -- another lopsided win for his 12-and-under team. The losers leave, heads down. The winners hug, giggle, check their nails.

Grason watches his troops depart. "Top five," he says, as they trickle out the door.

Pardon?

"If these girls would stay together, they'd be a top five team in high school."

As if Grason would settle for that.

It's Feb. 3, 1983, and Towson Catholic's gym is rocking. The girls basketball team, ranked No. 1 nationally for the first time by USA Today, is trouncing Notre Dame Prep. The home team leads 80-17, as Gert Scott drives and the crowd roars and a bass drum pounds with every point. Will the Owlettes hit the 100 mark again? Coach Gus Grason gathers his charges, eyes the clock, works the clipboard. Towson Catholic scores 100 on the final basket, and the house goes nuts.

A blue-and-gold banner still hangs above the door of the high school gym, the legacy of a tempestuous coach who dragged Baltimore girls basketball into the modern era, then resigned in a storm of controversy.

The pennant reads:

Towson Catholic Owlettes National Champions 82-83 83-84 84-85

Grason engineered the lot. He broke new ground and vexed his peers. He recruited aggressively, scouring playgrounds for talent. He doled out scholarships, and helped his stars get into college. He held grueling workouts, planning each second of practice.

His teams probed and pressed opponents, often winning by 50 points or more. They played numbing 40-game schedules, globe-trotting 10,000 miles a year to compete in Canada, the Virgin Islands and Ireland, while deftly dodging the few local schools capable of an upset.

"It was like going to a party every day," recalls Grason, 47, himself a 1967 graduate of the school. "We took that high school program as far as it could go."

Cloudy end to bright era

The Owlettes put Towson Catholic, a parochial school of 400 students, on the map. In Grason's 12 years, the team averaged 29 victories and won 90 percent of its games, including the last 70 in a row.

Then, in 1985, his team having topped the USA Today poll for the third straight year, Grason retired. He cited stress and family commitments. Acquaintances say he was forced out, that his growing autonomy began to alarm school administrators -- who'd always given Grason a long leash -- and drew criticism from archdiocese officials.

Starved for competition, the coach had begun a wider search for games -- and players. With the arrival of Ellen Langhi, a 6-footer from Kentucky who left family there to play her senior year at Towson Catholic, pressure mounted to pull the plug -- especially when Langhi was found living off-campus, unchaperoned, with several teammates.

"Everyone was saying the school was a basketball factory," says Langhi, now a strength coach at Duke University. "They were concerned that if [Grason] had gone to Kentucky to get a player, like, what's next?"

"There was a lot of negative talk about Towson Catholic's program," recalls Larry Callahan, then superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "Gus was a go-getter who believed in what he was doing. But the feeling was that it was time for it to end."

When the coach left, players fled to other schools. The program never recovered.

Grason, now a real estate developer, spurned basketball for nearly a decade, returning quietly in 1995 to coach his three children's rec league teams near their home in Phoenix.

Deja vu? Grason's record this season is 80-2, with 10 left to play. One game ended 60-2. The girls' jerseys are blue and gold, and their numbers match those of Towson Catholic greats like Gert Scott, who could do a finger-roll off an alley-oop pass, and 6-3 Tori Harrison, the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

Grason's girls, meet Grason's ghosts.

His specter still haunts high school basketball.

"Gus' program elevated the girls' game, showed where it could go if all five players could really, really play," says Elaine Lindsay, athletic director at Dulaney High. "But the basketball community wasn't ready for someone who was that focused and dedicated and willing to step on their feelings, or their hearts, as he went by."

Grason's antics would go unnoticed today, his former players say.

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