If the basketball season started today, Middletown High School would not have a team.
Right now, the Knights have just three varsity players. It’s not that Middletown doesn’t care about basketball. It’s that, at the present moment, it just cares a heck of a lot more about football. And with the Knights’ football program making a run at their second consecutive state title, it’s hard to blame them.
“Right now,” said Bradley Rinehart, a reserve back on the football team and a guard for the basketball team. “I’m 100 percent focused on football.”
Basketball tryouts were 14 days ago. Rinehart hasn’t picked up, or shot, a basketball since summer.
“You just have to have a lot of patience,” coach Aaron White said. “You have to realize you’re not going to be up to speed with other teams. You’re not going to know what type of team you have until January.”
By the time 2013 begins and White has grasped the character of his team, Middletown will have played six games. Urbana, meanwhile, has a long history of setting its basketball team back. Early in preseason practice, the Hawks missed three expected starters — Brendan Wharton, Cole Burdette and Darren Ambush — due to the football team’s surprise run through the playoffs. At least three more football players planned to try out for the basketball team.
“It’s tough,” Urbana coach John Cooper said. “Because you know your football players are good kids who want to play basketball, but they don’t have time to try out. I can’t have three or four days.”
Cooper should really consider himself lucky. He didn’t have to endure a four-year stretch between 1998-2001 in which Urbana won the football state title each season. But he did have to wait in 2010 while a significant contingent of his team extended their season once more into December, forcing his squad to another quick and unprepared start.
“It sets us back, absolutely,” Cooper said. “But even further than that, you got guys playing in the Crab Bowl and that’s where they miss games.”
The key for coaches such as Cooper and White is to find the silver lining, something Cooper has become quite the expert at.
“What I like about football is it builds discipline and toughness,” he said. “And what I like about them going to states is that it builds the school up. It’s good for the school.”
And even more than that, younger players get valuable varsity minutes while the veterans heal from football season and switch gears. But even Cooper readily admitted that much of it will boil down to an ability to “just hold it all together until we get to February.”
Like the Urbana coach, White is 100 percent in support of the football team even if that means a haphazard start for his own team. He’s already canceled practice so everybody can travel down to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for the Saturday’s state final.
But White also has it much worse than Cooper. The Urbana coach’s biggest concern is having different styles of play depending on who is in the lineup. With the football players, it is an fast-paced game. Without them, it’s a much slower pace.
“I really like this group,” he said. “I just have two different teams.”
But in a sport that requires five players on the floor at a time, there’s not much White can do with just three.
“It’s totally different this year,” he said. “Last year, we had enough to scrimmage and put things in. But with three guys at practice you can’t put anything in or do anything until they come back.”
He had the foresight to cancel a pair of scrimmages with Poolesville and Clear Spring a few weeks ago so those schools could reschedule and still get their preseason work in. But what might prove to be more difficult is moving the first two regular season games against Smithsburg (Dec. 5) and Francis Scott Key (Dec. 7).
Because both games are away, the host coaches — normally they are very understanding in these types of situations — are not required to move the games, meaning Middletown could start 0-2 without so much as a jump ball.
“This, is an abnormal situation,” White said.
And even when the players do come back, there’s still no telling how long it will be until they are really back.
“It’s a different sport,” White said. “You use different muscles. It’s going to be a transition period.”
Rinehart is confident his feel for the basketball hasn’t left, although he admitted that it usually takes a couple games for him to dial down the physicality of his play. Cooper is also equally assured that his Hawks will be just fine come game time.
“They’ll show you football didn’t kill their jump shot,” he said.
But still, no matter how badly the football team may set the basketball team back, there’s no animosity between the two programs.
“They’re great guys and I really want them to win it,” Cooper said. “I believe in one team at Urbana.”
For now, White in particular, it’s just a matter of getting enough players to form one.