- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

Rebecca Reifsnider is a 5-10 junior, a top rebounder and scorer among girls high school basketball players in Frederick County. She wants to play in college, and her coach believes she is good enough.

Yet Reifsnider does not attend high school, public or private.

She plays for the Frederick Warriors, a team of home-schooled students. A better name might be “Road Warriors.” They have no home gym and practice once a week at a local middle school. The Warriors mainly compete against small, Christian, private high schools, most of which practice regularly in their own facilities. Their starting point guard is a seventh-grader, and college recruiters do not attend their games.

As part of an increasing number of home-school sports programs nationwide, the Warriors and a few basketball teams in Maryland and Northern Virginia play varsity schedules against private high schools that enjoy home-court advantages and frequent practices. Home-schooled teams confront limited practice time, extensive travel, scheduling hassles and high fees for facilities, officials and insurance.

“It’s not like you go down to the gym after school to practice,” said Rebecca’s father, John Reifsnider.

On the other hand, he added, “It creates a whole new family. You have all these families you never would have come into contact with.”

Rebecca Reifsnider is one of about 1.5 million home-schooled students in all grades, according to the U.S. Department of Education. She recently scored her 1,000th career point and is steadily improving, according to her coach, Barry Blickenstaff.

“I can say she has as good low post moves and footwork of any kid I’ve ever coached,” said Blickenstaff, a former high school boys basketball coach.

“I have great coaches here and they always push us as hard as they can,” Reifsnider said. “It’d be nice to have more practice time, but I don’t think I’d give that up to play for someone else.”

Reifsnider, whose younger sister, Sarah, is a freshman and a budding star for the Warriors, hopes to gain exposure and refine her game by playing AAU basketball this summer. She works out with a personal trainer, plays pick-up games, often against boys, and has spirited one-on-one battles with Sarah (who is nearly as tall) on the small, concrete slab at their home in Keymar, Md. “We like to challenge each other,” Rebecca said. “It’s very competitive.”

Some home-schooled teams like the Warriors have developed strong programs. Other teams struggle, but all share a common thread.

“They live for basketball,” said Chris Davis, who coaches a girls team in Front Royal, Va., and runs a Web site that serves as a national clearinghouse and information center for home-schooled teams in all sports.

Most of the teams are faith-based, reflecting the families’ Christian beliefs. Many of these students would be attending religious private schools if not for home schooling. Some, like the Reifsnider sisters, used to attend private school. Teammates often go to the same church and play on teams, like the Warriors, that were formed as ministries “to develop godly Christian character,” as team founder Phil Passarelli put it.

He also made sure to add, “We strive to win every game we play. We don’t like losing.”

Despite the obstacles, interscholastic home-school competition is growing, in several sports. The Warriors recently started a boys program. Even football teams, which require many more players, are springing up. In Oklahoma City, the annual National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships host about 300 teams.

Starting on March 9, Davis will run his own tournament, the rapidly expanding East Coast Basketball Championships for home-schooled boys and girls varsity, junior varsity and middle-school teams from as far away as Texas.

In the tournament’s first year, 1997, eight teams participated. This year, Davis said, he expects 52. Davis had to move the tournament from Fredericksburg, Va., to Liberty University in Lynchburg to handle the increased demand, and colleges are now sending scouts to the tournament, he said.

A big reason for the increased participation is that home schooling itself is on the rise.

“Part of it is economics,” said Davis. “Between Christian schooling and home schooling, it’s the least expensive choice. You look around, people are opposed to public schools. What’s the alternative? There are moral, Christian reasons and a general distrust to what’s being taught. … And because of the economy, enrollments at private schools are down.”

Despite some lingering skepticism about home schooling (a California court last year ruled it illegal, but the decision was overturned.), attitudes are shifting as the practice complies with state educational standards. More home-schooled students each year are going to college, and the U.S. military academies now accept a small number.

Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall, Prince William Republican, said during his first campaign in 1991, his opponent tried to use home schooling as a misdeed. “It was as if I fed them Lysol for dinner,” Marshall said. “There’s been a change in understanding. It was felt to be a badge of infamy.”

The Reifsniders, who live in a fifth-generation farmhouse 150 to 200 years old, began home-schooling when Sarah and Rebecca started sixth and eighth grades. Both had attended private Christian high schools, but a “mix-up” with the affiliated church led them to consider other options, said the girls’ mom, Deb Reifsnider.

“We checked with other private schools, but the tuition was out of our range,” she said. “We knew home schooling was a possibility and decided to try it and see how it would go.”

Deb Reifsnider said she did extensive research on the Internet, talked to people who home-schooled their kids and attended a Christian home-school fair in Harrisburg, Pa. Home-schooling software explained the basics, and she learned how to comply with state standards for home schooling.

“I really didn’t know much about it,” she said. “Both girls enjoyed it, and I felt it went very well. I felt like they learned as much as they did when they went to a traditional school.”

Although she is not well-versed in such subjects as calculus, which Rebecca is taking this year, Deb Reifsnider said the curriculum is “self-explanatory” and even more thorough than what some schools might offer.

“Rebecca has taken her PSATs and scored very highly,” she said. “She has a cousin who goes to a public school in a different state who’s a year older, and there are things she’s doing that he doesn’t know how to do.

“A lot of colleges are realizing that there’s less wasted time during the day. If you have that mind-set, you can do a lot more. When my kids went to private school, they never completed a textbook in a year’s time. Now they go cover to cover.”

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Home-school teams usually are started by a dad who wants his kids to play organized sports. Passarelli’s daughter, Kimberly, one of 10 children, played recreation league basketball through the seventh grade. Then Passarelli started the Warriors, who will travel as far as Carlisle, Pa., and Front Royal to play.

With six seniors last season, including Kimberly Passarelli (who led all Frederick County girls in scoring and assists and earned a scholarship to Frederick Community College), the Warriors went 25-6. This year is a rebuilding year, but they still have won more than they’ve lost.

However, Passarelli said the program’s best moment came two years ago after a tournament loss to a strong private school team.

“With two minutes left, the referee came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I just want to tell you I’ve been refereeing games for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a team with this kind of character,’” he said. “That was better than any trophy I could have gotten.”

Passarelli this season turned over varsity head coaching duties to Blickenstaff, who coached the Middletown (Md.) boys team for seven years. He isn’t the only home-school coach with outside experience. Dan Frost of the Fairfax Kings boys team played at the University of Iowa under Lute Olson and was voted the team’s most valuable player in 1975. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and played for Athletes in Action.

This is a different deal altogether.

“It’s hard,” Blickenstaff said. “We want to be competitive, and we’ve been very successful so far. We practice once a week, and we’ve got to take advantage of the time we get. We give out a playbook and do what we can, but we are definitely at a disadvantage every night out.”

At least the Warriors have a full schedule. And because Passarelli can get the time through Frederick Parks and Recreation, they practice in a modern, regulation gym (albeit just once a week). But scheduling problems reduced Frost’s Kings to fewer than half the usual number of games. Some teams use facilities like Hoop Magic in Chantilly, Va., that require a hefty rental fee. Officials also have to be paid. The Warriors rely exclusively on donations, but for other teams, families sometimes pony up hundreds of dollars.

“If you hear frustration in my voice, it’s because I am frustrated,” said Frost, whose son, Jason, was home-schooled and is currently redshirting on a junior college team in California. “I’ve always tried to operate this like a regular school [team], to give the kids the same experience.”

Frost’s general coaching philosophy is to “break through what I call the home-school mentality, that this is going to be like a PE class,” he said. “I tell them right off the bat, ‘This is varsity basketball, and you’re going to practice and play at that level.’”

Still, the Kings have hopscotched to three different practice gyms. The good news is they finally settled on one and get to practice three times a week. The bad news is that it’s much shorter and narrower than a full-sized court, and the scant distance between the wall and out-of-bounds poses an injury risk. “It’s very, very small,” Frost said.

This is not uncommon. “The biggest obstacle, by far, is finding facilities,” said Davis, whose team was bumped from its middle-school gymnasium in December and wound up in an undersized church gym. “We balance between practice time and games, and decided to cut back on games.”

As for the gym, “The dimensions are not even close,” he said.

One of the Loudoun County Patriots’ practice sites is a tiny, middle school auxiliary gym. “I can’t shoot a 3-point shot because the roof is so low,” said senior guard Jordan Yost, whose father, Kelly, coaches the team. “We can’t run our plays because the facility isn’t built for high school basketball.”

“We can’t practice our offense our defense because we don’t have the spacing,” Kelly Yost said. We don´t have the markings.”

That was a few weeks ago. Since then, the Patriots have found yet another practice site, a church gym across the Potomac in Maryland. That, too, is undersized, but at least the ceiling is higher.

The Patriots had just lost a competitive game to Calvary Temple, a Sterling, Va., private school with a tiny enrollment but a huge basketball tradition, as evidenced by two overstuffed trophy cases and championship banners on the wall of its brightly lit gym (complete with concession stand). “We fully expected to win the game,” Yost said.

There were more coaches on the Calvary bench than players, each outfitted in natty team jackets. On the Patriots’ bench, a jacketless Kelly Yost had a single assistant.

“Right now, we’re just starting to get it, and the season is about to end,” he said, lamenting the lack of practice time. “We’re teaching every night we practice, but we don’t have the time to physically practice. It always comes back to haunt us.”

Yet the Patriots have exceeded 100 points several times, even though they are relegated to practicing occasionally outdoors on Yost’s backyard court. Steve Oberlander, who founded the program, said home-schoolers in Loudoun County are last in the pecking order after public schools and recreation leagues. “The challenge of gym time is really hard for us,” he said. “The irony is we pay hefty real estate taxes, and we can’t get a time.”

Oberlander has tried to schedule games against public schools in Virginia, but they have balked. Other home-schooled coaches are happy to play against private schools only.

Home-schooled athletes in some states can play for public or private high schools. University of Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was home-schooled but played for Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Washington Redskins defensive end Jason Taylor, who is likely headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was home-schooled while playing football and basketball for a public high school in Pennsylvania.

Florida’s law allowing home-schoolers to compete for public schools resulted from the intense, two-year efforts of Brenda Dickinson, whose home-schooled son in Tallahassee, Fla., wanted to play high school sports. She said she has received several messages of thanks from grateful Gators fans. In Alabama, activists are trying to pass what is being called the “Tebow Law.”

More states, however, prohibit home-schooled athletes from competing for public schools. Their parents might pay taxes used for education, but enrollments often determine the distribution of funds, and home-schooled students do not fill seats in the classroom.

“There’s such a degree of animosity between public school people who feel like we’ve rejected them and we’re taking money out of their system, and if we don’t pay the price and go to their schools, our kids shouldn’t have the opportunity to play sports,” said Dickinson, president of the Home Education Foundation.

Still, Tebow and Taylor are exceptions. Most home-schooled athletes would have trouble making a public high school team. But they are happy just for the chance to play, at any level.

“The girls are having a blast,” said Mike Merryman, coach of the Fairfax Firebirds girls team. “It’s a bunch of friends playing together, they’re getting their exercise and learning to work together as a team. Afterward, they all go out to dinner together. It’s a great relation-building opportunity.”