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Commentary: How to make high school sports better

Another high school sports season in the books. A great year, for the most part. But it could be better.

Nobody asked me, but here are a few suggestions, some for individual schools, some for Carroll County, some for the state of Maryland. All serious. All implementable. No need to thank me.

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The NBA has a shot clock. The NCAA has a shot clock.

Yet, go to a boys high school basketball game in the state of Maryland and be prepared to be transported back to a long-ago black-and-white era, when guys with too-short shorts were positioned in the four corners of the court content to throw the ball around for several minutes at a time, never even looking at the hoop, happy to win games 19-18.

Certainly, not all games are like that. For the most part, coaches around here simply play, although that changes in the last few minutes for teams clinging to moderate leads. But the memory is fresh of South Carroll's state semifinal game in 2012, when Lake Clifton stalled for virtually the entire second quarter. A few teams employed that same strategy at this year's state tourney.

That's not basketball. It isn't fun for the players. It isn't entertaining on any level for the fans. And it doesn't identify the best team. Basically, it allows a team to get out to a lead and then play keepaway for however long its coach wants.

Meanwhile, there is a shot clock in girls basketball. Go figure.

Maryland certainly isn't the only state that remains trapped in the 1950s. According to USA Today, only eight states employ shot clocks because the National Federation of State High School Associations keep voting it down. And states are reluctant to go against NSFS rules because those that do are denied a seat on the voting committee.

I guess a case can be made that this is the way the original rules of basketball were written. A bad case.

Might as well strap a peach basket to the wall, have a jump ball after every made basket and count 25-foot shots as two-pointers.

Time to evolve, people. Just about every other sports has rules against stalling and the top high school players who go on to play in college will be using the shot clock soon enough. For good reason. If the NBA and NCAA allowed this nonsense, hockey would be our most popular winter sport.

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Speaking of evolving, how is it that we are still making high school tennis players call "in" or "out."

OK, OK, I've written about this before, so I'll keep it brief. But, seriously. There were more incidents this year at the county tennis tournament and, frankly, I'd be surprised if there weren't mini-controversies in every match.

It's difficult to play tennis. It's difficult to make line calls in tennis. Trying to do both at the same time? Please. Calls are going to get missed and tempers are going to flare.

And the notion that kids should just play anything that's close is ridiculous. Down 40-30, receiving a cannon serve that's hard enough to hit but even more so because it's three inches behind the line, is a kid really supposed to try to return it to be a good sport?

Imagine if kids had to call their own balls and strikes or make a block/charge decision, or decide pass interference among themselves. Even volleyball has officials and that ball is huge compared to a tennis ball. If it's too expensive to have officials for every single meet that's a shame. But at least bite the bullet and pay some people to officiate the big events, like the county tourney. Or the state tourney.

No one should have the responsibility of playing a sport and playing official at the same time. No one should be tempted to cheat and no one should feel like his or her opponent is cheating. And no one should have to return shots that are clearly out just to be looked at as a good sport.

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Here's another one for the state: Pick a classification and stick with it.

There are four classifications based on school size in Maryland. So there are Class 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A state champions in each sport. Except when there aren't.

Does it make sense to anyone that there are four individual shot put champions in the state, but only two heavyweight wrestling state champions, and only one individual state golf champion? Or that four baseball teams can claim state titles each year, but only three boys lacrosse teams and two wrestling teams?

North Carroll and Manchester Valley, among the smallest schools in the state, compete for teams titles against like-sized schools in most sports. But in lacrosse both schools have to go up against much bigger schools in a made-up 2A-1A bracket, and lost in regionals to 2A schools from Carroll.

Here's a shocker: All four regional champions in the 2A-1A girls bracket, and three of the four region champions, including both finalists, in the 2A-1A boys bracket were 2A schools.

One or the other of those Carroll schools probably would've been state champs if there was a bracket for 1A schools. And I don't care that only 20 or so Class 1A schools play lacrosse. That's still a minimum of two playoff wins to get to the state tournament, which is the same number that was needed in the mid-1990s before the open playoff system began. Better to have fewer playoff games against schools of similar size than to have to go up against a school double your size just to make all the state brackets look balanced.

I'd also split wrestling into four classifications. If that's too many wrestlers to hold the state tourney in one place, fine. Have separate tourneys, crown the top teams and individuals in each classification, then, reconvene the following weekend with all four individual champions at each weight wrestling against each other in a showcase tournament.

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I've never understood why the state contests two different seasons of track and field, one in the winter and one in the spring. The argument is that it's a way to keep more athletes active during the winter and that it's great training for the spring. True, but couldn't essentially the same argument be made for indoor soccer or indoor lacrosse?

They say it's too different sports, different distances, different disciplines. Yet let's see, the Century boys and the Liberty girls won the county title in the winter ... and the Century boys and Liberty girls won the county title in the spring. Ditto, mostly, for the individual events.

Not to take anything away from those athletes or teams. Great achievements. But wouldn't it be better to have some completely different sport at that time, offering swimmers or gymnasts a chance to compete for their schools?

Or, how about this? Cheerleading is technically considered a sport by the state, but it's not as if Westminster ever goes to play Winters Mill or Century ever hosts Liberty in dual-meet competition. Maybe the winter could be the time cheerleading truly becomes a sport, with a schedule filled with meets leading up to county, regional and state championships, with the same seeding process and format as every other sport.

Just a thought. Nothing against track, but I'm sure players who focus on other sports would love an extra season, too.

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Wouldn't it be great if fans of soccer or basketball or lacrosse could actually get a chance to watch both boys and girls play those sports? Wouldn't it be nice if the boys playing those sports could come out to the girls games and support their school, and vice versa?

Problem is, they are virtually always scheduled opposite of each other. So, for instance, if Francis Scott Key is at South Carroll in boys basketball then SC will be at FSK in girls basketball. This is done to ease scheduling and to allow the junior varsity games to be played at the same site prior to the varsity games. Of course, this doesn't happen in baseball or softball and the world has continued to turn.

Ideally, boys games and girls games could be played on alternating days of the week. Failing that, schools should at least be sure to schedule a few male-female "doubleheaders" each year, to give the girls players a chance to watch their male counterparts and vice versa, not to mention giving fans of those sports a chance to watch both versions for a change.

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Finally, before this gets too lengthy - I know, too late - here are a few more quick suggestions:

• Stop allowing coaches to pick all-star teams based on age and attitude. Their teams are filled with seniors and "good kids," often at the expense of athletes who had far better seasons. Guess what? When these kids get older they're going to get graded, promoted and fired based solely on performance.

• Be smarter when choosing uniforms. Light numbers on light jerseys don't work. Ditto for dark on dark. If the public address announcers can't tell the crowd who just scored the goal or caught the pass, the schools have failed in the most basic of ways.

• And, lastly, keep in mind that winning is definitely important at the high school level, but not as important as the lessons that are learned. When the South River boys lacrosse coach refused to allow himself or his players to be interviewed after losing to Westminster in the state final last week, he revealed his character and he reinforced to all his kids that poor sportsmanship is just fine when things don't go your way.

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