Boys basketball: Rainier Beach is No. 1 in the nation

Coach Mike Bethea offered a few hints at practice yesterday because, like his players, he'd heard the whispers and the rumors and the projections.

There's no need for that this morning.

Everyone can come right out and say it.

The Rainier Beach boys basketball team is the best in the land, according to the latest USA Today high-school rankings, released last night.

"I told them the chances were good," Bethea said. "It seemed to pump the kids up that we'd be ranked No. 1."

The Vikings, ranked No. 2 before the season, assumed the top spot with a 69-62 overtime victory over West Aurora, Ill., last week and a little help from much-heralded prep sensation LeBron James.

James' St. Vincent-St. Mary squad knocked off top-ranked Oak Hill Academy 65-45 last week in a game televised nationally on ESPN2, clearing the way for the defending Class 3A state champion Vikings (4-0).

Rainier Beach is the first boys basketball team from Washington to be ranked No. 1 by USA Today since Mercer Island, led by Quin Snyder and Brian Schwabe, earned the distinction in December 1984.

"That was one of our goals," said senior Rodrick Stewart of being ranked No. 1. "But our main goal really is to stay undefeated and to stay undefeated when we go out of state. We've got to keep getting better every day. No team is going to lay down for us."

The Vikings will play at West Seattle on Thursday before flying to Houston on Dec. 26 to compete in the Academy National Invitational. Rainier Beach will open against No. 5 R.J. Reynolds from Winston-Salem, N.C.

Also competing in the eight-team tournament will be No. 3 St. Patrick from Elizabeth, N.J., Oak Hill from Mouth of Wilson, Va. (which fell to No. 10 with last week's loss) and No. 16 Rice from New York City.

"It's great for the state of Washington. It really shows that basketball here is at as high a level as it is anywhere in the country," said Dan Jurdy, Rainier Beach athletic director. "Hopefully, we'll represent Washington well."

Head of the class

Rainier Beach, moving up from No. 2, is atop this week's USA Today boys basketball rankings:

1. Rainier Beach 4-0
Averaging 88.3 points per game, high of 102
2. Miami (Fla.) Christian 6-0
At Iolani Classic in Honolulu this week
3. St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) 0-0
Opens Friday in Fort Myers, Fla., tournament
4. Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) 7-0
Went 5-0 to win San Antonio tournament
5. R.J. Reynolds (Winston-Salem, N.C.) 4-0
Opens against Beach Dec. 26 in Houston tourney
6. Brookhaven (Columbus, Ohio) 4-0
Moved up from No. 7 in preseason rankings
7. Pike (Indianapolis) 3-0
Won 82-49 and 85-30 after sluggish opener
8. Bishop O'Connell (Arlington, Va.) 3-0
Has season high of 106 points, averaging 84.3
9. St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) 4-0
LeBron James' team beat then-No. 1 Oak Hill
10. Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) 8-1
Averaging 91.3 points per game
In 1984, Mercer Island's grip on the top spot lasted only a few days, as the Islanders suffered their lone loss of the season to unranked Flint Hill Prep of Oakton, Va., 60-56, at a holiday tournament in Las Vegas. They tumbled to No. 19 after the defeat, but won the rest of their games to claim the Class AAA (now 4A) state title and finish the 1984-95 season with a 28-1 record and a No. 11 national ranking.

"It was an honor, but nothing is forever. We were there for a short period of time," said Mercer Island Coach Ed Pepple. "I think the kids all savored that they could say, at one time, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation."

The challenge for Rainier Beach, as it was for Mercer Island, Pepple said, will be to handle the increased pressure that comes with the top billing.

"They're the team by which every other team in the state is being measured," he said. "I think their kids will handle it (the No. 1 ranking) pretty well because I think that's what they've been shooting for all along."

USA Today started the national rankings in 1982, the newspaper's first year.

They reflect a team's win-loss record, its strength of schedule and its state and regional reputation, said USA Today high-school sports reporter Chris Lawlor, who has been in charge of the rankings for the past three seasons. Other factors might be the presence of a well-respected coach or several potential big-time college recruits.

All of the above applies to Rainier Beach, Lawlor said.

"They're well coached," he said. "Mike's very good for this club. He's one of the better coaches out there. I don't know if he gets the respect he should, but he certainly deserves it."

Rainier Beach has qualified for the state tournament in each of the past five seasons under Bethea, who is 180-50 since taking over the program during the middle of the 1993-94 season. The Vikings won state titles in 1998 and 2002, finished second in 2001, third in 2000 and seventh in 1999.


LeBron James will receive some more TV exposure, this time from the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network on Feb. 6-9 during a tournament in Trenton, N.J. The tournament will include Virginia's Oak Hill Academy, which lost to James' St. Vincent-St. Mary's team 65-45 on an ESPN2 broadcast. That telecast generated a 2.0 cable rating, highest for the network in two years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.