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Schools look for answer to girls basketball routs

Lakeshore Public Academy in Hart, Mich., has only 50 students and just a handful of sports teams. Academics, not athletics, are supreme. So it is a complete surprise that Lakeshore has become the subject of a debate on sportsmanship and fair play in high school sports.

It began when the Lakeshore girls basketball team lost to Walkerville High School early this season. Lost badly, in fact, 115-2.

The blowout was perhaps the most troubling of what many coaches and educators say has been an increasing number of lopsided games across the country this season, particularly in girls basketball.

In Indiana, the Bluffton High School girls team defeated Blackhawk Christian 77-17. In Washington, D.C., the Anacostia High School girls beat Cardozo 90-2.

And in an event that could make the mismatches hall of fame, the girls team at Dunbar, another high school in Washington, played consecutive games in a tournament recently, beating Idea Charter School 89-12 in the first game, and Cardozo 98-7 in the second.

In the wake of these lopsided outcomes, a national high school sports federation is considering rules that might curtail such demoralizing losses.

"I am very concerned about these blowout games, because I think they are increasing in number and getting worse," said John Johnson, communications director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association. "The purpose of school sports is to educate kids. There is nothing to be learned in these blowout games. No one should be embarrassed in high school."

Youth leagues in baseball, soccer and other sports have for years tried to restrain coaches from demoralizing opponents. In some baseball leagues, a "mercy rule" calls for games to end early if one team is ahead by 10 or more runs. In some soccer leagues, coaches are fined if their teams win too many games by a margin of more than six goals.

But many high school coaches and officials say that blowouts have become a significant problem in high school girls basketball. Paradoxically, the reason appears to be that many more girls are playing the sport than ever before. But as new teams arise, they often play accomplished teams with experienced and talented players.

It was the overwhelming loss to Walkerville that turned Lakeshore Public Academy into a reluctant national symbol for mismatches. The school's rise to sports notoriety began in November when it took on Walkerville, which has been playing girls basketball for years and won several state titles in the 1980s.

Walkerville coach Steve Kirwin played all of his substitutes, and told his team not to use a full-court press, but the scoreboard stayed busy. The result was one of the most lopsided girls basketball games in Michigan's history. Melissa Hawley, 15, who scored the only basket for Lakeshore on a 10-foot jumper _ nothing but net _ said, "We never gave up, but they were just a lot better than we were."

High school basketball coaches across the country expressed outrage at the final score, and some parents and teachers pointed to the game as another example of the decline of sportsmanship.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that nearly 20 percent of more than 500 girls basketball games in Cincinnati this season have been blowouts, with the victors scoring at least 30 points more than the losers.

The talent in girls basketball is often concentrated in a limited number of schools with winning traditions. As more schools begin fielding girls teams, a rift has opened between the established programs and the newer ones.

Many experts think eventually things will even out, and as the talent grows there will be fewer blowouts. But in the meantime, they say, there will be no shortage of lopsided games.

"This is all about the have and have-nots," said Dunbar coach Johnnie Walker. "I have girls on this team who have been playing basketball since they were 9 or 10 years old, and some of the teams I play against have girls who just started playing a few months ago and are in their mid-teens. That's no contest."

Walker and other coaches with strong teams insist that they try to limit the embarrassment sustained by an overmatched opponent. They bench starters; some tell their teams to play less aggressively. Still, those strategies are often not enough to keep the score from running out of control.

"Some schools we play, they just don't have the talent," Walker said. "In those cases, there is only so much you can do to keep the score down."

Even though this is happening at a time when girls basketball is more popular than ever, coaches fear that some girls may begin playing, experience an embarrassing defeat or two, then quit the sport.

"The girls can become very demoralized," Walker said. "As a coach, you just have to encourage your team that things will get better."

The disparity has sent officials scrambling for solutions. In Prince George's County in Maryland, when a boys or girls team builds a lead of 30 or more, the game clock converts to running time; the clock does not stop for free throws, substitutions or timeouts, as it does ordinarily. This speeds up the game and helps to restrain an outrageous final score.

In 1998, the Michigan High School Athletic Association conducted a three-year experiment in which a running clock was used in girls and boys games after a team went ahead by 40 points. The organizers of the experiment were amazed at the scores of girls games, with outcomes like 87-14, 93-4 and 75-3 being somewhat common. Officials cringed at the thought of what those scores might have been without a running clock.

"We would have had 110- or 120-point disparities," said Johnson, the association's communications director.

Some people contend, though, that the running clock is not as effective as it might seem. Nina Vanerk, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, said it might actually motivate some coaches to run up the score as rapidly as possible in a game.

"Some coaches may want blowouts because they think it can intimidate a future opponent," Vanerk said.

Michigan and Missouri officials petitioned the National Federation of State High School Associations, the rule-making body for more than 17,000 high schools, to make the running clock permanent in states that desired to do so.

The federation's rules committee approved the proposal, but the board of directors rejected it. Mary Struckhoff, assistant director of the federation, said the board wanted to consider applying the rule nationally, not state by state, as Michigan and Missouri wanted. The board will discuss the proposal again next month.

Struckhoff said that although the proposed rule had been under discussion for some time, the 115-2 score of the Lakeshore-Walkerville game had "put the proposal in the spotlight, because no one wants to see a score like that."

High school sports officials in Michigan considered ignoring the national federation and imposing the rule. But Michigan abided by the decision because if it had not, it would have lost its vote on other basketball rules, Johnson said.

"In hindsight, I think we still should have done that anyway, because it's a good rule that helps kids," Johnson said.

Lakeshore began its athletic program for the reason most schools do, to give kids a positive after-school experience.

"Sports gives kids another option to doing drugs or other self-destructive things," said Steve Hamilton, Lakeshore's athletic director.

Lakeshore didn't win a game this season, going 0-18. Still, the players are encouraged. "What I like about basketball is you get a feeling of accomplishment when you're on the court," said LeAnne Arman, 14. "We may be losing now, but one day we'll start winning."