Forty years ago this week, DeMatha’s basketball team made history.
By that time, Hall of Fame coach Morgan Wootten had been at the school 20 years and had turned it into the premier high school basketball program in the Washington area, if not the country.
But the Stags had never finished a season unbeaten. That is, not until a 74-64 victory over league rival Mackin in the finals of the Alhambra Invitational Tournament on March 18, 1978.
The victory was DeMatha’s 33rd straight and completed a perfect 27-0 run though the schedule. That year, for the third time in Wootten’s career, the Stags were judged to be the best high school team in the country.
Long winning streaks had become the norm for the Hyattsville private school by then. But never before had Wootten’s Stags gone through an entire campaign without a loss.
Wootten never set an undefeated season as a goal; winning the league title and the old City Title Game was the prize DeMatha sought at the end of each season.
Most years, the league DeMatha played in was too difficult to navigate without a loss. For teams like St. John’s, Carroll, Gonzaga and Mackin, games against DeMatha were always the biggest on their schedules. DeMatha, being the top dog, always got everyone’s best shot.
Then, too, Wootten sought out strong non-league competition as well. His thought was that playing quality teams served to prepare his own squad for the rigors of conference play. Going undefeated was never Wootten’s goal; winning championships was.
DeMatha wrapped up the 1977-78 Metro Conference title with a blowout of Good Counsel on Feb. 21, reclaiming the the crown it had won 15 of the previous 17 years. In the City Title Game again Interhigh rival Dunbar, the Stags triumphed, 63-58. Dunbar had come into the game having won 19 in a row and 25 of its previous 26.
The 1977-78 Stags gave an indication of what kind of season it would be from opening night. They blasted a quality W.T. Woodson team, 105-66, in the season opener. Tommy Branch (whose younger brother Adrian became DeMatha’s main man a few years later) led the charge with 25 points.
That was just the beginning. Eight times that season, DeMatha topped 100 points. Not only was it a unique DeMatha team because of its record, but because of its makeup as well. Over the years, Wootten’s teams boasted big stars like Ernie Cage, John Austin, Bob Whitmore, James Brown, Adrian Dantley, Kenny Carr and Hawkeye Whitney.
This team didn’t have anyone like that in the starting lineup. Branch was the top scorer on the team, averaging a modest 15 points per game. He also was the lone All-Met pick. But what the Stags might have lacked in star power, they made up for with depth: for this was a team that came in you in waves. When curious college coaches would drop by and ask Wootten who his best player was, he would innocently reply: “I have no idea.”
“We probably had 10 guys that were interchangeable,” said Dutch Morley, the senior starting point guard, even though a future NBA player (Sidney Lowe) waited in the wings. “If someone had a bad night, there was no reason he couldn’t be taken care of by the other guys. There wasn’t that much of a letup (going from the first team to the second). We pretty much had two teams.”
And because Wootten could use 10 players with no drop-off, DeMatha could wear down opponents.
Having all that talent was unquestionably a plus. It gave DeMatha a huge edge in games and the competition among team members for playing time was “pretty intense” according to Morley. That also kept anyone from letting up, even as the victories mounted.
Wootten’s biggest challenge was keeping everyone happy, even if they played only half of the games. Lowe and Derek Whittenburg led North Carolina State to an improbable NCAA title in college, but neither could crack the DeMatha starting lineup as high school juniors. Still, whatever personal feelings the players might have had about playing time were sublimated for the good of the team.
“We had to keep 10 guys happy,” Wootten recalled. “The big thing was to make sure everyone felt wanted, felt loved.”
That kind of quality depth was a nightmare for other teams, though. Against DeMatha that year, opposing coaches knew they couldn’t gear their defenses to stop any one player. They also realized they couldn’t double-team anyone, and understood that it was impossible to predict who might take the key shot at a critical time.
“There was no answer,” Wootten said.