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Fifteen years ago, Tyree Spinner barely considered attending his local public high school and was set on a private school.

Now, he’s asking incoming freshmen to do just the opposite.

Spinner grew up in Virginia and played tight end at Paul VI, where he earned a football scholarship to the University of Virginia. Now, the Thomas S. Wootton High School football coach said he has a different mindset.

“I would definitely choose the public school route,” Spinner said. “I think it offers a more realistic outtake on life. I was in private school. You go to school every day. You’re in your shirt and tie, your uniform. Really, you’re coddled. It’s kind of scary to be completely honest. At public schools, especially at Wootton, they get you ready for life.”

Did Spinner have a sincere change of heart, or is he stretching the truth to fit his pitch?

That’s the question Rockville football players and their parents must answer.

The New York Times recently wrote about the intense nature of middle school basketball recruiting in the Washington, D.C. area, where many high-profile private schools vie for the talents of 13-year-olds. But what the article hardly mentioned: Public schools have upped their efforts to retain players being recruited by private schools, and the trend is very visible in football

“We put forth an effort, because if you don’t, the cupboard will be bare,” said J.C. Pinkney, who coaches football at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro. “It’s a day and age at this point, you can’t just say, these guys, because they’re in your zone that they’re going to automatically come here. They have a lot of options out here for these kids now. If you don’t fight for your program, you’re going to look up and it’s going to be one graduation class away from everybody’s gone.”

Spinner’s first season at the helm ended without a playoff berth, but he’s is excited about his team’s future. Freshman Trevon Diggs — whose older brother, Stefon, starred at the private Our Lady of Good Counsel before playing for the University of Maryland — already turned heads by choosing Wootton over the private schools recruiting him. Spinner said five heavily recruited eighth-graders — a quarterback, two receivers and two linemen — have committed to Wootton.

“I’m doing the exact opposite of recruiting,” Spinner said. “So, instead of recruiting kids to go to my school, I’m trying to prevent kids from leaving.”

Henry. A Wise High School football coach DaLawn Parrish, whose team completed a 10-0 regular season, credits much of his success to accomplishing what Spinner is trying to do — though it comes with a personal cost.

“I don’t like the situation,” Parrish said. “I personally don’t think you should be recruiting kids in eighth grade. I mean, that’s a college recruiting thing. Once you start recruiting little league kids and Pop Warner kids, I just think that’s kind of unethical. But I see that’s where it’s going to. Recruiting kids to come to your high school — I never thought I’d see that day in a public school setting.”

Parrish said he attends youth football games a couple times each year, so he can give players and parents a chance to get to know him — a common tactic among high school coaches. But if his program hadn’t already stocked itself with players, he said he’d attend more youth games.

“You have to. It wouldn’t be an option,” Parrish said. “If you couldn’t do it, then you might want to coach in a different jurisdiction.”

To Parrish, the key is getting players enrolled at Wise, because once they do, they rarely leave.

Wise linebacker Frank Porter said he was recruited by Gonzaga and St. John’s before enrolling at Wise. He said his youth league coaches contacted him during his freshman year, when he was playing junior varsity, and urged him to reconsider the private schools.

“If I would have had my mindset now back then, I probably would have went to a private school [for ninth grade],” said Porter, who has decided to pursue football after fancying himself as more of a basketball player. “But I like that I’m at Wise. To me, it’s better than a private school.”

Parrish said he was too focused on coaching to know whether private school coaches attend Wise’s varsity games, but he said he’s seen them at junior varsity games.

“Imagine if public school coaches went to the private school league and stood on their sideline and said, ‘Hey, you, kid that’s not playing. You can play at my school. Come on back to our school,’” Parrish said. “It would be chaos.”

Spinner said he has seen private schools come to his varsity games to recruit Trevon Diggs.

“If they have the amount of disrespect to come to your program and recruit, then obviously, they speak for themselves,” Spinner said. “It lets me know that I have a treasure someone else wants. It doesn’t bother me at all. I would never say to someone, ‘Don’t come to our games and recruit that day.’ You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. If you want the best players, you’ve got to go above and beyond what you’d normally do to get them.”

Parrish said private schools often give players assurances that he’s not willing to match.

“Of course they promise it, just like colleges promise people stuff,” Parrish said. “’You’ll play right away. You’re going to start. You’re going to be a freshman on varsity. You’re going to do this.’ We see it time and time again.”

Parrish said once a player in his zone receives any promise from a private school, “not often” does that player enroll at Wise.

“These private schools are like sharks,” Parrish said.

“I’m sorry that that’s the perception of private schools,” said Elijah Brooks, who coaches DeMatha Catholic High School, a private school in Hyattsville.

To Rodney Myers, coach of the Hyattsville-Mount Rainier-Brentwood Boys & Girls Club youth football team, the private school coaches are hardly pariahs. When they attend his games to recruit players — which is quite often — their first question to a player is usually about his grades.

Myers’ team is mostly comprised of players in the Northwestern High School, High Point High School and Bladensburg High School zones, but he said he’s rarely seen coaches from those public schools attend his games. Northwestern coach Bryan Pierre said the Boys & Girls Club games typically occur at the same time as his school's varsity and junior varsity games, so he focuses more of his outreach on Northwestern's middle schools.

That might explain why the private schools have landed every player they’ve recruited on Myers’ team — until this year, when one player turned down a chance to visit a private school because he wants to attend Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt.

“I was kind of shocked,” Myers said.

That wouldn’t shock Bryce Bevill, who coaches Bishop McNamara, a private school in Forestville. He and Brooks agree the public schools can be formidable competition for players.

“We’ve gotten kids away from other private schools,” Bevill said, “and we’ve lost kids to public schools.”

When that happens, Bevill and Brooks can move onto recruiting a player anywhere. Public school coaches are limited to players in their districts, so they rely on networks to identify potential prospects.

Parrish said he sometimes gets word about a talented player from his barber. Some of Pinkney’s former players coach Boys and Girls Club teams and share information with him. And a few Montgomery County public schools — Wootton, Rockville, Winston Churchill, Quince Orchard, Seneca Valley and Walter Johnson — have teams in the middle school division of the Rockville Football League, which can serve as an implicit recruiting tool, because if players enjoy their experience there, they’ll be more likely to stick with the program.

And current varsity players help, too.

Wise safety Marcus Allen was recruited by Gonzaga, St. John’s and Bishop McNamara while he played for the Maryland Razorbacks youth team.

“I felt real cool,” Allen said. “I had high schools recruiting me, and I thought I could get a free education and play for a good high school team.”

But a few varsity players intervened.

“When they saw my highlights from the Razorbacks on YouTube, they talked to my sister during class and was like, ‘Man, he has to come to Wise,’” said Allen, whose older sister was already enrolled at the high school.

For public school programs, all the effort often can feel fruitless.

“It’s a tough sell against Good Counsel,” said James H. Blake coach Tony Nazzaro, whose public school sits a few miles down the street from Good Counsel in Olney. “I’m going to be honest. If a kid’s good enough to play Good Counsel, he’s got the opportunity to play on ESPN and travel to Las Vegas or San Diego or Ohio and play other teams. It’s tough to say, ‘Oh, yeah don’t go do that. Come play 20 minutes from your house every week.’”

Though the private schools have larger exposures, their rosters are mostly filled with local players. Of Good Counsel’s 50 varsity players, 27 hail from Montgomery County, eight from Prince George’s County and three from Frederick County. Bevill estimates 85 percent of Bishop McNamara’s players come from Prince George’s County.

Perhaps because public school coaches in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have put in more effort to retain players in their districts, Ryan Hines, who coaches at Urbana, the southernmost school in Frederick County, said he’s seen more private schools look to his area.

In turn, Hines has attended more youth league games than he ever expected would be necessary for a public school coach. And that’s not limited to watching only players on the verge of high school.

“You can’t really look at an eighth-grader and try to start a relationship with a kid who’s in eighth grade, because by that point, he’s had just as much time in a relationship with some of the schools that are recruiting him,” Hines said. “You’ve got to start a lot younger than that.”

It’s a process that can take up to five years before a player even enrolls in high school, Hines said.

It’s the next frontier for public school athletics, and coaches are looking for any edge. Offered a chance to add more thoughts, Spinner didn’t hesitate.

“I really want you to put in the last line in the story,” Spinner said with a laugh, “Coach Tyree Spinner at Wootton High School really would prefer any kid in the Wootton district not to go to private school.

“It never stops. I want everyone who lives in the district to know that I’m not going to let them go to a private school easily. I’m going to put up a fight.”

dfeldman@gazette.net