Shortly after John Cooper became Urbana High School’s boys basketball coach in 2010, he took his team to the Montgomery County summer league.
More than anything, it was habit. For 10 years, Cooper had coached the summer league team at Col. Zadok Magruder, where he was an assistant coach before coming to Urbana.
That same summer, his son was working with a trainer, lifting weights and shooting 300 jump shots per day. But on days Zach Cooper had summer league games, he skipped his workouts to play for Urbana.
John Cooper realized his son was not only “driving 45 minutes to play 20 minutes,” but also missing valuable preparation. He decided the summer league games weren’t benefiting Zach as much as the individual workouts.
Urbana hasn’t played in a summer league since.
Unlike Montgomery County and Prince George’s County boys basketball teams, Frederick County teams increasingly opt for offseason alternatives to summer leagues.
Cooper said summer leagues make sense for some teams — just not his right now. Frederick County, unlike Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, has no Class 4A schools, so the smaller a school, the more likely a school's teams are to share athletes. Urbana’s basketball team frequently features athletes whose primary sport is football.
“I need to develop individual skills,” Cooper said. “Right now at Urbana, we’re not real skilled. I’ve got football players. They know flex. They know how to cut. The know how to set hard screens. They need to make jump shots and handle the ball.
“They’re good athletes. They’re just not great basketball — well, they’re good basketball players. They need to shoot better.”
That’s why Cooper likes his team playing 1-on-1, 2-on-2, 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 games, which gives each player more opportunities to dribble and shoot. To work on team concepts, Urbana also participates in shootouts — typically a weekend event where several teams gather and play each other — and other county teams, such as Gov. Thomas Johnson, have attended team camps.
Frederick County’s football success has placed even greater importance on individual work. In the past three years, Frederick County has produced six state football finalists and nine state semifinalists — by far, more than any other county. That means basketball teams at schools advancing deep into the football playoffs must wait longer for their full team to assemble if they have football players, leaving more playing time up for grabs.
Before last season, the Urbana football team had made the playoffs eight consecutive seasons and 12 of the past 13. That meant Cooper wanted his junior varsity players ready to start the season on the varsity team.
“Summer — they need to shoot, they need to lift, they need to shoot, and they need to lift,” Cooper said.
Football players also have summer commitments, making it difficult for a two-sport athlete.
“I think it can all be done,” Thomas Johnson coach John Manley said. “I think it’s possible. You might have to give and take a little bit. I know some football coaches don’t want to give. They’re kind of tunnel vision. I tell my kids, ‘You can do both. You’ve just got to [manage your time] and be organized with it.’”
Aside from football, money is an important factor. Because Frederick County no longer hosts its own summer league, area basketball teams must travel either to Montgomery County or Hagerstown for the nearest league. In addition to transportation costs, the Montgomery County summer league costs about $900 per team.
Last summer was the first time Manley’s team didn’t participate in a summer league.
“Montgomery County is very expensive, and I just felt that it wasn’t worth the trip sometimes for that,” Manley said. “It’s a great league, don’t get me wrong. It’s great competition. But we, as a city school, it’s a little tough sometimes to pool your funds.”
So, Thomas Johnson opted this summer for the St. Maria Goretti summer league in Hagerstown, which cost about $400.
Tuscarora participated in the Montgomery County summer league this year, but if more of his players play a fall sport in the future, Tuscarora coach Pat Cook said he would opt for more shootouts. Because he hasn’t had as many football players, Cook has had the luxury of playing in the league’s weeknight games.
“I like spending my weekends with my family,” Cook said.
So, what’s the best course of action for a Frederick County basketball team in the summer?
“Still searching,” Manley said.