By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- Central High School head boys basketball coach Brandon Shields wanted to find a way get the Falcons consistently on the court during the summer, a tough task for any high school coach.
There are always the weekly open gym sessions at the school, but Shields wanted something more concrete -- a way to get his projected varsity squad in the gym to compete against similar teams from around the area.
Shields first devised a plan for a one-day "shootout" at the school but his idea fell through. He then came up with another option -- a structured summer league in which high school varsity teams could play each other in a competitive format.
Shields began nailing down the specifics in early June, and on July 9 his creation -- a seven-team summer league for area high school varsity teams -- held its first slate of games.
"A lot of times July is a pretty lax period. A lot of teams shut it down in July and I was looking for a way that we could keep getting better in July," Shields said on Monday. "... We actually were going to run just a one-day shootout here and things fell through. I was just like, 'Why don't we just do a summer league?' I sent an email out to a couple teams. I expected to have three or four [teams join] and I got eight."
Shields' summer league quickly gained a foothold with some local high school teams, and it is the first such offseason program for varsity boys basketball teams in the area despite the fact that the Virginia High School League rule that had previously restricted offseason instruction between coaches and players was relaxed about two years ago.
The league currently boasts seven teams, as Central, Skyline, Strasburg, East Rockingham, Handley, James Wood and Millbrook are all competing this summer. Shields said Harrisonburg initially joined but had to back out before the season began.
Area coaches said one of the biggest draws of the new summer league is that it provides players and schools a cheaper alternative to sending teams to instructional camps.
"I think a lot of people are looking for options other than a team camp away, maybe to save some money and things like that," Strasburg athletic director and head boys basketball coach Matt Hiserman said Tuesday.
The league also allows for a chance to get an early look at talent that will be taking the court when the official season begins in November, a bonus for any high school coach.
"We're still finding ourselves this year and I think that's another great thing about the league," Shields said. "Every team has new guys every year and this is a chance to kind of get your identity down pat to figure out who you need to be to be successful this year."
"It gives us a good opportunity to gauge not only where we are, but you get to see some of the opposition as well," said Skyline coach Jacob Bates, who is in the middle of trying to rebuild a program that struggled to stay competitive last season.
"If you're trying out different things ... you want to look at it now rather than four or five games into the season and saying, 'We've got to go back and look at that,'" Bates added. "That part is invaluable."
The summer league is structured so that each team plays at least two games each Wednesday, with some teams playing three games due to the unbalanced schedule. Games begin at 5 p.m. and two different courts are used so that two games can be conducted simultaneously. The final games each Wednesday tip off around 8:30 p.m.
Shields said the league aims to keep things as true to a real high school atmosphere as possible. The bleachers are pulled out to accommodate spectators, the concession stands are opened -- with all proceeds going to the athletic programs -- and VHSL referees are hired when feasible. Team standings are also kept and a playoff round is scheduled for July 30 at Handley, where all teams will participate.
Skyline will host today's round of games before the competition moves back to Central for the final "regular season" round on July 23. The games are open to the public and are free admission.
Shields said he hopes this year's edition of the summer league is just a glimpse of what it will ultimately become.
"I expect it grow next year as well. I think we might end up hosting every week here and using the middle school," Shields said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we have 10 or 12 schools next year because [this year] it was last minute that we got it all organized.
"The kids love it. The coaches are enjoying it. Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that just kind of happen."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org