For John Carroll girls basketball coach Craig Simmons, playing in the annual Public vs. Private Challenge is always a priority.
“John Carroll was one of the founding schools with starting this whole thing, so we kind of feel like it’s still ours and it’s one of the things we love doing,” Simmons said.
The Public vs. Private Challenge on Saturday at McDonogh has grown from a small event run by former John Carroll coach Mike Blizzard into an all-day, 21-game mixer. Al Schell, founder and president of 695Hoops.com, has run the event for six years and it as grown every year, becoming a priority for the top local girls basketball teams.
This year, 14 of The Baltimore Sun’s top 15 teams will play in some of the season’s mostly highly anticipated matchups, such as No. 2 McDonogh vs. No. 4 Long Reach, No. 3 Roland Park vs. No. 6 Western, No. 7 Howard vs. No. 9 John Carroll, and No. 8 Old Mill vs. No. 15 Mount de Sales. Only No. 1 St. Frances is not in the challenge, but Schell said the Panthers have committed to play next year.
One of the biggest draws for most coaches is the chance to play nontraditional opponents. Over the years, there have been some hotly contested games between Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland teams and public school teams.
“We don’t really get a chance to play a lot of different types of public schools,” Simmons said, “so for us, Coach Al does a good job with the scheduling. He knows we’re pretty good, so he matches us up with a different type of team that we don’t normally see in conference.”
Schell spends a lot of time trying to match teams with similar strengths. He watches all of the state final games and tries to account for graduation and transfers when setting up the following year’s schedule.
“The matchups that look good on paper will usually translate onto the court,” Schell said, “but there’s always some concern about how teams might change. They looked good last year, but might not be the best matchup this year. Those are the challenges — and the sheer number of games, making sure they don’t run too long and we’re not there all night.”
Not every coach will be perfectly happy, but most games are competitive and most coaches want to keep coming back.
Long Reach coach Kelli Cofield, whose team soared into the top five after beating Howard on Jan. 3, did not play in the challenge last season, but she was eager to return after playing in 2016.
“Really my main focus in being in games like this is to give these girls opportunities to play in front of people that can help them at the next level,” Cofield said, referring to the college coaches who scout the event annually. “Then the second focus is to play some teams that will help us prepare for the playoffs. Matching up against private school teams gives us a different look than we would see in regular county play.”
Roland Park coach Scott Buckley, whose team faces a rematch of last year’s 82-71 win over Western, has always liked playing the top public school teams.
“We try to play them in events other than this, too,” said Buckley, whose Western game was in the Power Move Winter Showcase last year. “This is an all-under-one-roof kind of thing and I think the public likes it, wants to see the matchups. And the way kids are now, they’ll be playing with some of the public school kids in the summer and almost all of our kids will know somebody on teams all day. They’ll get there early and they’ll watch. I think they like to see it, too, and I think there’s a little bit of bragging rights. We like to see how our league’s doing and how our league holds up against the best publics.”
One of the keys for Schell is keeping the event local. This year, every team is from Maryland.
“We have She Got Game and we have Title IX in the area and those are great events,” Schell said. “I like watching our teams play against some of the national powerhouses, but this event is not open to the top 25 teams in the country, it’s not open to teams from outside the area. This is a D.C., Maryland, Virginia event. It’s not something I’m trying to build so I can one day turned it into a national thing, because that’s not what I’m interested in. I go to those events, I love those events, but this is the opposite of that. This is where we celebrate the girls in this area.”
Public Vs. Private Challenge
No. 8 Old Mill vs. No. 15 Mount de Sales, 9:30 a.m.