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DCPS enrollment rules lead to prep-sports dynasties.

Cardozo’s boys basketball team won the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) championship last week in overtime over H.D. Woodson. That’s the Clerks’ third title in a row in the public-school league.

“I expected this one,” says Cardozo head coach Hanif Hill about the latest trophy.

And Hill’s expectations weren’t out of line. Leave parity for the pros. Dynasties like the one burgeoning at Cardozo are the norm in D.C. public-school athletics.

Just as Cardozo’s got a stranglehold on the basketball title, Dunbar owns the football crown: Coach Craig Jefferies has led the Crimson Tide to wins in seven of the last eight Turkey Bowls, and his team has lost just one regular-season league game since 1997. And in baseball, Wilson coach Eddie Saah’s squad has won 191 of its last 192 league games and has yet to lose to a public-school rival in this century. This week, Wilson began its quest for a 14th consecutive city baseball title with a scrimmage against J.E.B. Stuart in Falls Church.

Cardozo’s latest hoops championship came in Hill’s first season as coach. He replaced Henry Lindsey, who had been at the school for 26 years. And it came without Lester Williams, the best player from last year’s championship squad, who has sat out his entire senior year because of what Hill describes as academic-eligibility issues.

But, again, Hill says, he figured the transition to a new coach and a new floor leader wouldn’t hamper Cardozo’s title chase. As the cliché goes, Cardozo wasn’t rebuilding; it was reloading.

“I knew all these kids,” says Hill, who was an assistant to Lindsey for four years before taking over as head coach. “I recruited all of them to come to Cardozo.”

Recruited? At a public high school?

Yes, recruited. D.C.’s is the only school system in the area that allows a student athlete to attend and play for any school he chooses, regardless of whether he lives in that school’s geographical boundaries. That means D.C. is also the only jurisdiction in which major-sport coaches, as if they’re not overworked and underpaid enough, have to recruit in order to remain competitive.

The D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) plan, called the “Out of Boundary” program, has been in place for decades. The open enrollments were initially instituted to allow a student to choose a school that had the most desirable academic offerings, such as a specialization in science or business. But readin’, writin’, and ’rithmatic aren’t the only suitable reasons to gain admission to a school of the student’s choosing, even one on the other side of town.

“It might be as simple as a parent saying there is already an older child going to the school, or simply that you or the child wants to go to the school,” says Toni Nelson, a DCPS spokesperson. “And it could be that Dunbar has a fabulous football team and you want to play football.”

And for years now, the best kids have definitely wanted to play football at Dunbar. Strictly by the map, Nathan Bussey, Dunbar’s phenom quarterback, should have gone to H.D. Woodson, he said in a 2004 interview. But after taking his Hine Junior High School team to a title in 2003, he says, he was recruited by five public high schools. He decided to go to Dunbar because he’d watched Jefferies’ teams play in the Turkey Bowl year after year.

“I wanted to become part of the Dunbar tradition,” said Bussey, who has since played in two Turkey Bowls himself and stands to win a third as a senior next season.

The best youth-baseball leagues are all in upper Northwest, in Wilson’s district. So Saah’s primary personnel chore is to keep the kids who live in Wilson’s normal territory from venturing outside the neighborhood. He also makes room for talented kids from outside the school’s traditional boundaries who come knocking on his door wanting to play ball.

The schools that grab all the talent don’t have great facilities to dangle in front of potential athletes. Cardozo’s basketball team, for example, plays every game on the road, because the only gym on campus with bleachers is too small and too run-down to host varsity games.

“Sometimes we call Roosevelt our home gym, except when they tell us we can’t play there, like they did a few times this season,” says Hill. “But really, we don’t even think about it. We don’t have a home.”

As for Dunbar, until the Redskins came to the rescue with some cans of paint and some very charitable donations last year, the school’s home locker room had the ambience of a poorly maintained jailhouse.

And Wilson baseball, for all its incredible successes, doesn’t have its own baseball field. The team is forced to play home games on the school’s football field. That means the spot where a right fielder would typically play is across Nebraska Avenue NW.

But nothing breeds winning like winning. Hence the dynasties.

“You’d think if you want to play baseball, you’d want to come to Wilson to play,” says Saah.

Yet at a time when baseball is on death watch at many DCIAA schools—Saah says Eastern High School has yet to find nine players and even one pitcher for the 2006 season—Wilson has had 40 kids come out for the team this year. Saah runs two full squads: varsity and developmental. No other public school in the city has a JV squad for Wilson’s B-team to play.

There is, of course, a less happy side to allowing so much athletic talent to be concentrated in so few schools. For every have in DCIAA sports, there are several have-nots.

While Dunbar could dress as many football players as a Division I powerhouse if Jefferies so desired, Spingarn Senior High is starved for players. Coach John “Peterbug” Matthews had only four kids come out for the first day of practice for the 2003 season, his first season as the Green Wave’s coach. Despite Matthews’ wondrous supply of effort and optimism, Spingarn won just one league game last year. The lone victory came against an Eastern squad that went winless and scoreless for the entire season.

Matthews says that he’d have a decent chance at competing with the city’s big boys if neighborhood boundaries were as respected in D.C. as they are in neighboring jurisdictions.

“I know we could do a lot better if the people who are supposed to come to us came to us,” he says. “Close to Spingarn, we’ve got Browne [Junior High School], which has a good football program that had 30 ballplayers last year. We got two of those. We’ve got Johnson [Junior High School]. They’ve got a full team there. We got two players from them, too. It’s tough, because all the kids with any name as a player end up going to the same schools, not here.”

But given the freedoms that the open-enrollment plan affords, Matthews doesn’t blame those who pick Dunbar over Spingarn.

“If you have a choice, would you want to ride in the 2006 Cadillac or the 1949 Volkswagen?” he says. “I understand why the kids do what they do.”

So while Hill, Jefferies, and Saah have earned the right to head into every season expecting another championship, Matthews spends most of his offseason worrying if he’ll have enough bodies to fill out a starting lineup. But he says that recent activity at his school indicates the program has turned a corner toward respectability. He says he’s added several new assistants to his staff with strong backgrounds in local sandlot football leagues, in hopes of developing a recruiting pipeline to Spingarn to exploit in the years to come.

And, in the shorter term, he’ll have six star players from last year’s team returning to Spingarn next season.

At least Matthews thinks they’ll return.

“Hopefully, I don’t have to worry about nobody [from a Spingarn rival] buying nobody a sweat suit and some tennis shoes,” he says with a laugh. “But nobody’s got nothing on DCIAA when it comes to recruiting. I tell you.”—Dave McKenna