Home­school­ers aim to hoop it up

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY BOB COHN

Re­becca Reif­s­nider is a 5-10 ju­nior, a top re­bounder and scorer among girls high school bas­ket­ball play­ers in Fred­er­ick County, Md. She wants to play in col­lege, and her coach be­lieves she is good enough.

Yet Reif­s­nider does not at­tend high school, pub­lic or pri­vate.

She plays for the Fred­er­ick War­riors, a team of home­schooled stu­dents. A bet­ter name might be “Road War­riors.” They have no home gym and prac­tice once a week at a lo­cal mid­dle school. The War­riors mainly com­pete against small, Chris­tian, pri­vate high schools, most of which prac­tice reg­u­larly in their own fa­cil­i­ties. Their start­ing point guard is a sev­enth-grader, and col­lege re­cruiters do not at­tend their games.

As part of an in­creas­ing num­ber of home-school sports pro­grams na­tion­wide, the War­riors and a few bas­ket­ball teams in Mary­land and North­ern Vir­ginia play var­sity sched­ules against pri­vate high schools that en­joy home-court ad­van­tages and fre­quent prac­tices. Home-schooled teams con­front lim­ited prac­tice time, ex­ten­sive travel, sched­ul­ing has­sles and high fees for fa­cil­i­ties, of­fi­cials and in­sur­ance.

“It’s not like you go down to the gym af­ter school to prac­tice,” said Re­becca’s fa­ther, John Reif­s­nider.

On the other hand, he added, “It cre­ates a whole new fam­ily. You have all th­ese fam­i­lies you never would have come into con­tact with.”

Re­becca Reif­s­nider is one of about 1.5 mil­lion home-schooled stu­dents in all grades, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. She re­cently scored her 1,000th ca­reer point and is steadily im­prov­ing, ac­cord­ing to her coach, Barry Blick­en­staff.

“I can say she has as good low post moves and foot­work of any kid I’ve ever coached,” said Blick­en­staff, a for­mer high school boys bas­ket­ball coach.

“I have great coaches here and they al­ways push us as hard as they can,” Reif­s­nider said. “It’d be nice to have more prac­tice time, but I don’t think I’d give that up to play for some­one else.”

Reif­s­nider, whose younger sis­ter, Sarah, is a fresh­man and a bud­ding star for the War­riors, hopes to gain ex­po­sure and re­fine her game by play­ing AAU bas­ket­ball this sum­mer. She works out with a per­sonal trainer, plays pick-up games, of­ten against boys, and has spir­ited one-onone bat­tles with Sarah (who is nearly as tall) on the small, con­crete slab at their home in Key­mar, Md. “We like to chal­lenge each other,” Re­becca said. “It’s very com­pet­i­tive.”

Some home-schooled teams like the War­riors have de­vel­oped strong pro­grams. Other teams strug­gle, but all share a com­mon thread.

“They live for bas­ket­ball,” said Chris Davis, who coaches a girls team in Front Royal, Va., and runs a Web site that serves as a na­tional clear­ing­house and in­for­ma­tion cen­ter for home­schooled teams in all sports.

Most of the teams are faith­based, re­flect­ing the fam­i­lies’ Chris­tian be­liefs. Many of th­ese stu­dents would be at­tend­ing re­li­gious pri­vate schools if not for home school­ing. Some, like the Reif­s­nider sis­ters, used to at­tend pri­vate school. Team­mates of­ten go to the same church and play on teams, like the War­riors, that were formed as min­istries “to de­velop godly Chris­tian char­ac­ter,” as team founder Phil Pas­sarelli put it.

He also made sure to add, “We strive to win ev­ery game we play. We don’t like los­ing.”

De­spite the ob­sta­cles, in­ter­scholas­tic home-school com­pe­ti­tion is grow­ing, in sev­eral sports. The War­riors re­cently started a boys pro­gram. Even foot­ball teams, which re­quire many more play­ers, are spring­ing up. In Ok­la­homa City, the an­nual Na­tional Chris­tian Home­school Bas­ket­ball Cham­pi­onships host about 300 teams.

Start­ing on March 9, Davis will run his own tour­na­ment, the rapidly ex­pand­ing East Coast Bas­ket­ball Cham­pi­onships for home-schooled boys and girls var­sity, ju­nior var­sity and mid­dle-school teams from as far away as Texas.

In the tour­na­ment’s first year, 1997, eight teams par­tic­i­pated. This year, Davis said, he ex­pects 52. Davis had to move the tour­na­ment from Fred­er­icks­burg, Va., to Lib­erty Uni­ver­sity in Lynch­burg to han­dle the in­creased de­mand, and colleges are now send­ing scouts to the tour­na­ment, he said.

A big rea­son for the in­creased par­tic­i­pa­tion is that home school­ing it­self is on the rise.

“Part of it is eco­nomics,” said Davis. “Be­tween Chr is­tian school­ing and home school­ing, it’s the least ex­pen­sive choice. You look around, peo­ple are op­posed to pub­lic schools. What’s the al­ter na­tive? There are moral, Chris­tian rea­sons and a gen­eral dis­trust to what’s be­ing taught. [. . . ] And be­cause of the econ­omy, en­roll­ments at pri­vate schools are down.”

De­spite some lin­ger­ing skep­ti­cism about home school­ing (a Cal­i­for­nia court last year ruled it il­le­gal, but the de­ci­sion was over­turned.), at­ti­tudes are shift­ing as the prac­tice com­plies with state ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards. More home-schooled stu­dents each year are go­ing to col­lege, and the U.S. mil­i­tary acad­e­mies now ac­cept a small num­ber.

Vir­ginia Del­e­gate Robert Mar­shall, Prince William Repub­li­can, said dur­ing his first cam­paign in 1991, his op­po­nent tried to use home school­ing as a mis­deed. “It was as if I fed them Lysol for din­ner,” Mar­shall said. “There’s been a change in un­der­stand­ing. It was felt to be a badge of in­famy.”

Home-school teams usu­ally are started by a dad who wants his kids to play organized sports. Pas­sarelli’s daugh­ter, Kim­berly, one of 10 chil­dren, played recre­ation league bas­ket­ball through the sev­enth grade. Then Pas­sarelli started the War­riors, who will travel as far as Carlisle, Pa., and Front Royal to play.

With six se­niors last sea­son, in­clud­ing Kim­berly Pas­sarelli (who led all Fred­er­ick County girls in scor­ing and as­sists and earned a schol­ar­ship to Fred­er­ick Com­mu­nity Col­lege), the War­riors went 25-6. This year is a re­build­ing year, but they still have won more than they’ve lost.

How­ever, Pas­sarelli said the pro­gram’s best mo­ment came two years ago af­ter a tour­na­ment loss to a strong pri­vate school team.

“With two min­utes left, the ref­eree came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I just want to tell you I’ve been ref­er­ee­ing games for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a team with this kind of char­ac­ter,’ ” he said. “That was bet­ter than any tro­phy I could have got­ten.”

Pas­sarelli this sea­son turned over var­sity head coach­ing du­ties to Blick­en­staff, who coached the Mid­dle­town (Md.) boys team for seven years. He isn’t the only home-school coach with out­side ex­pe­ri­ence. Dan Frost of the Fair­fax Kings boys team played at the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa un­der Lute Ol­son and was voted the team’s most valu­able player in 1975. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and played for Ath­letes in Action.

This is a dif­fer­ent deal al­to­gether.

“It’s hard,” Blick­en­staff said. “We want to be com­pet­i­tive, and we’ve been very suc­cess­ful so far. We prac­tice once a week, and we’ve got to take ad­van­tage of the time we get. We give out a play­book and do what we can, but we are def­i­nitely at a dis­ad­van­tage ev­ery night out.”

At least the War­riors have a full sched­ule. And be­cause Pas­sarelli can get the time through Fred­er­ick Parks and Recre­ation, they prac­tice in a mod­ern, reg­u­la­tion gym (al­beit just once a week). But sched­ul­ing prob­lems re­duced Frost’s Kings to fewer than half the usual num­ber of games. Some teams use fa­cil­i­ties like Hoop Magic in Chan­tilly, Va., that re­quire a hefty rental fee. Of­fi­cials also have to be paid. The War­riors rely ex­clu­sively on do­na­tions, but for other teams, fam­i­lies some­times pony up hun- dreds of dol­lars.

“If you hear frus­tra­tion in my voice, it’s be­cause I am frus­trated,” said Frost, whose son, Ja­son, was home-schooled and is cur­rently red­shirt­ing on a ju­nior col­lege team in Cal­i­for­nia. “I’ve al­ways tried to op­er­ate this like a reg­u­lar school [team], to give the kids the same ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Frost’s gen­eral coach­ing phi­los­o­phy is to “break through what I call the home-school men­tal­ity, that this is go­ing to be like a PE class,” he said. “I tell them right off the bat, ‘This is var­sity bas­ket­ball, and you’re go­ing to prac­tice and play at that level.’ ”

Still, the Kings have hop­scotched to three dif­fer­ent prac­tice gyms. The good news is they fi­nally set­tled on one and get to prac­tice three times a week. The bad news is that it’s much shorter and nar­rower than a full-sized court, and the scant dis­tance be­tween the wall and out-of-bounds poses an in­jury risk. “It’s very, very small,” Frost said.

This is not un­com­mon. “The big­gest ob­sta­cle, by far, is find­ing fa­cil­i­ties,” said Davis, whose team was bumped from its mid­dle-school gym­na­sium in De­cem­ber and wound up in an un­der­sized church gym. “We bal­ance be­tween prac­tice time and games, and de­cided to cut back on games.”

As for the gym, “The di­men­sions are not even close,” he said.

One of the Loudoun County Pa­tri­ots’ prac­tice sites is a tiny, mid­dle school aux­il­iary gym. “I can’t shoot a 3-point shot be­cause the roof is so low,” said se­nior guard Jor­dan Yost, whose fa­ther, Kelly, coaches the team. “We can’t run our plays be­cause the fa­cil­ity isn’t built for high school bas­ket­ball.”

“We can’t prac­tice our of­fense our de­fense be­cause we don’t have the spac­ing,” Kelly Yost said. We don’t have the mark­ings.”

That was a few weeks ago. Since then, the Pa­tri­ots have found yet an­other prac­tice site, a church gym across the Po­tomac in Mary­land. That, too, is un­der­sized, but at least the ceil­ing is higher.

The Pa­tri­ots had just lost a com­pet­i­tive game to Cal­vary Tem­ple, a Ster­ling, Va., pri­vate school with a tiny en­roll­ment but a huge bas­ket­ball tra­di­tion, as ev­i­denced by two over­stuffed tro­phy cases and cham­pi­onship ban­ners on the wall of its brightly lit gym (com­plete with con­ces­sion stand). “We fully ex­pected to win the game,” Yost said.

There were more coaches on the Cal­vary bench than play­ers, each out­fit­ted in natty team jack­ets. On the Pa­tri­ots’ bench, a jack­et­less Kelly Yost had a sin­gle as­sis­tant.

“Right now, we’re just start­ing to get it, and the sea­son is about to end,” he said, lament­ing the lack of prac­tice time. “We’re teach­ing ev­ery night we prac­tice, but we don’t have the time to phys­i­cally prac­tice. It al­ways comes back to haunt us.”

PETER LOCK­LEY/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Ben Welty (5) of the Loudoun County Pa­tri­ots puts up a shot in the paint against the Cal­var y Tem­ple School in Ster­ling, Va. The Pa­tri­ots have ex­ceeded 100 points sev­eral times, even though they are rel­e­gated to prac­tic­ing oc­ca­sion­ally out­doors on a back­yard court.

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