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Woodlawn faces toughest challenge


On the eve of the Fuel Fund Classic, guess which boys'high school basketball team has the best record in the area?

Is it No. 1-ranked Southern? No, it's not coach Meredith Smith's Bulldogs, even though they're 14-1.

Is it coach Terry Leverette's No. 2 Southwestern team, which beat Southern?

Or No. 3 Dunbar, coached by Paul Smith? Or Charlie Moore's No. 4 Lake Clifton team?

No, no and no. It's none of those.

It's Woodlawn High, from Baltimore County. The Warriors have won 38 straight regular-season games and are 15-0 this season.

At least the Warriors are 15-0 now. Tomorrow at 8 p.m., that could change.

That's when Woodlawn meets perennial power Dunbar High (14-3) at the Baltimore Arena in the feature game of the annual hoops get-together that benefits families unable to pay their fuel costs.

Rodney Norris, who coaches Woodlawn, understands precisely what his team will be up against.

"Historically," says Norris, "teams like us go into a game against Dunbar and fold.

"I think we can give them a good game. The first thing we have to do is prove we belong on the same floor with them. Dunbar has lost three games, but they lost them all at the buzzer. They'll be a real challenge."

Norris has been around. When he says he likes his current team, you can be sure he has reason to.

Norris played at Towson State, from where he graduated in 1977.

He coached Essex Community College for four years, winning 20 games in his last year. He coached Perry Hall for three seasons and spent one as Henry Bibby's assistant with the now-defunct Baltimore Lightning of the Continental League. He was a Terry Truax assistant at Towson State for a year.

Norris is a savvy guy who knows what it takes to win at any level. That's why he helps his kids get to summer camps. That's why he scrimmaged Southern and Southwestern this year.

"You've got to do the extra things like that," he says. "Going against those good city teams helps us to get good. If we just went with our set schedule, we wouldn't be ready for competition like Dunbar."

Norris has earned a reputation as an excellent coach. This is his fifth year at Woodlawn, where his overall record is 89-20. During last season (23-1 with an 81-77 loss to High Point in the Class 4A championship game) and this one, his Warriors are a combined 38-1.

"Rodney Norris is a top-of-the-line coach," local guru Paul Baker says. "His teams are always well coached."

Dean Smith himself couldn't go 15-0 -- much less 38-1 -- with any team unless he had some talent. Norris admits he has it.

"Woodlawn High has always had a lot of good athletes who are excited about playing," Norris says. "When you get to school and see those gym rats hanging around, that makes it easy for the coach."

Woodlawn's best player, Donte Dudley, has been out all season with a 70 percent torn anterior cruciate ligament. He worked out yesterday and today wearing a brace. Norris is hoping to play him against Dunbar.

"Against Dunbar," Norris says, "we'll need every good athlete we can get."

Then there's 6-foot-6 Guy Butler, Woodlawn's leading scorer with an 18.9-point average. Butler's uncle, Ed Butler, was an outstanding player at Loyola College in the '60s. He comes to every Woodlawn game to watch his nephew.

A player who has captivated Norris is 6-7 Emmanuelle Adekunle, who was born in Nigeria.

"He's a great shot blocker," Norris says. "He jumps out and blocks three-point shots. He's a great young man. A 4.0 student. Scored 1,150 on his SATs."

Norris concedes that the top city teams are the cream of the area.

"When Southern has it all together," says Norris, "they have the best team around.

"Southern's Kevin Simpson is the best player in town. I watched the Charm City Classic at Loyola College last month, and Simpson was the best player in the tournament. He was better than the New York kid [Felipe Lopez] who's supposed to be the best in the country. At least Simpson was the best that weekend. Simpson looks like a big-time player to me."

Another "extra" thing Norris does is to maintain a friendship with University of Maryland coach Gary Williams. Rodney has brought some of Williams' expertise back to Woodlawn High.

"I admire Gary's coaching for two reasons," Norris says. "He's got his kids playing hard. I like that. They get after people. And they're exciting to watch."

Norris is still young enough to move up to a college job, but he's not really shooting for that.

"I enjoy working with high school kids, helping them along as they go through their teen years," he says. "But sometimes I think it would be nice just to coach basketball and not have to wear a million hats like you do in high school."

If he can upset Dunbar before a big crowd at the Arena, the Woodlawn job will seem just fine.

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