Growing by leaps, rebounds

Girls basketball: Known for the same one or two teams qualifying for states, Baltimore City has three schools going to this year's tournament.

High Schools

March 11, 2004|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Since Baltimore City teams began competing for state championships in the 1992-93 school year, city girls basketball has been well-represented in the state tournament, but never the way it is this year.

For the first time, three city teams -- City College, Western and Southside -- have advanced to the state tournament. Twice before, the city has sent two teams in a single year but never three.

Fourteenth-ranked City and No. 18 Southside have never been to states. Fifth-ranked Western makes its ninth appearance in the tournament, which begins this afternoon at UMBC's RAC Arena.

The trio of contenders doesn't surprise City coach George Petrides.

"It was always Dunbar or Western," Petrides said. "This year, there was a lot of parity [in the city league] and that shows with three teams going to the state tournament. This is great recognition for the city."

Until now, the only city teams that had played in the state tournament were Dunbar and Western, claiming six titles between them. In the past few years, however, a number of city teams have begun to improve rapidly.

Coaches cite two key components behind that growing strength and parity -- more consistency and quality in the coaching ranks and more players with Amateur Athletic Union experience.

"If I had to put my finger on one thing that has improved, it's the quality of the coaches," said former Western coach Breezy Bishop, who built the Doves into a national power before retiring in 1996. "They're caring and you can see them nurturing and mentoring those girls. It's such a joy to sit on the side and watch them care about the girls."

Bishop, who runs an after-school program at Southside and often stops in to catch part of a Jaguars game, said coaches today also have strong backgrounds in basketball.

Western coach Donchez Graham and Dunbar coach Wardell Selby are longtime AAU coaches. Southside coach Dafne Lee-Blakney, a star at Walbrook in the late 1980s, played at Maryland and then professionally in Europe.

Petrides, the dean of city girls basketball coaches after 18 years, brought in AAU coach Tim Burroughs three years ago to help him boost his program. Two weeks ago, the Knights won their first city championship.

"With the coaches coaching year-round, they're being exposed to a whole bunch of different styles of coaching and it enables them to take good stuff they've seen throughout the AAU season and apply it to the regular high school season," said Graham, in his second year at Western. "You're going to see the level of play increase when you have people who are committed to basketball and not necessarily to the paycheck."

While the coaching has improved, so has the level of play.

"If the coaches don't care about the program and the players, then the players don't care and the level of basketball reflects that," said Selby, who founded the Cougars AAU program in the mid-1970s.

The level of competition this season reflected the experience that many of the players brought from AAU ball.

The city's two best players, Walbrook's Renee Jones and Lake Clifton's Krystal Vaughn, turned otherwise inexperienced teams into competitors. Both are AAU veterans as are many of the players at City, Western and Southside, and up-and-coming Poly and Carver.

"We have a lot of kids in the city now participating in AAU and the talent is spread out. The kids are starting to see the seriousness of the game," said Lee-Blakney. "The WNBA is awful helpful, because it gives the kids something to look forward to."

More good players who live in the city are choosing public schools, often following AAU coaches such as Selby, Graham and Burroughs. Graham said it's up to the coaches and players to keep that trend going.

"Right now, everybody's trying to catch [private school champ] St. Frances," said Graham, "but kids can also go to Western, they can go to City, they can go to Dunbar. You really have to make your program be something to make the kids want that choice."

Dunbar and Western set the bar pretty high for the city teams following them to the state tournament. They have accomplished more in the 12 years since the city joined the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association than many programs that have been members for the entire 32 years of the girls state tournament.

Only one team in tournament history has won more consecutive titles than Dunbar, which won its fourth straight last season. The Poets' bid to tie the record of five straight ended when Southside beat them in last week's regional final.

Western won titles in 1994 and 1995. Just five teams have made more trips to the state tournament than the Doves, who are going for a ninth time.

More accomplishments figure to be added to the city's girls basketball resume, because the city's program appears to be embarking on a new era of success.

Just look at the rosters. Most of the players at City, Southside and Western are juniors or underclassmen.

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