For the record, Houston Strake Jesuit coach Wayne Jones says his basketball team isn't filled with ringers.
Not that such a declaration will satisfy skeptics just days before the Crusaders, with a gaudy 37-0 record, become the first private school to compete in the state boys tournament when they play DeSoto in the Class 5A semifinals Friday in Austin.
Jones wants to believe that six years of competing alongside public schools for the same prizes have aided Strake Jesuit's desire to be viewed as just another team in the University Interscholastic League, even though the Crusaders and Dallas Jesuit are the only two private schools among about 1,300 in the state's governing body for public school sports.
"From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., are we a private school? Absolutely we are. We teach religion here. We're college prep," Jones said. "But at 3 'clock we're just like everybody else. We abide by the same rules and regulations that the school down the street from us does and the ones in west Texas and southeast Texas and everywhere else. We're just another one of the guys. I think that's the way people perceive us now."
Those who don't will trot out the same arguments that kept private schools and the UIL separated for decades.
Even though the Jesuit schools are bound by the same attendance zone as the closest public high school, critics contend that they can draw students from anywhere. The harshest critics claim some private schools exist to build sports dynasties that dominate the national rankings, which means they have to recruit star players.
"That's just not our way," said Strake Jesuit athletic director Bill McDonald. "We rarely accept transfer students in anything, let alone in a sport. We don't go out and seek athletes to come to this school because they have this particular talent. It's just not the case."
Strake Jesuit is a boys-only Catholic school with an enrollment just shy of 900. McDonald said most of the students attend a collection of private feeder schools, with smaller portions coming from other private schools and some public schools.
If the school's enrollment figure were roughly doubled to mirror a coed public high school, Strake Jesuit would be in Class 4A, the second-highest classification. UIL rules allow private schools to join the state's largest classification (5A) as long as they don't qualify for a private school league.
Essentially, that's how the Jesuits ended up in the UIL. Their league disbanded, and they were deemed too large for the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, the biggest private school organization in the state.
The UIL's decision, which was crafted to limit inclusion to the Jesuits, came after Dallas Jesuit had sued in federal court seeking admission. That case was thrown out, but the court battles aren't over. San Antonio Cornerstone Christian has an appeal pending after its attempt to gain UIL admission was thrown out by a judge. Bills related to private schools and the UIL are common in the Texas Legislature as well.
Charles Breithaupt, the UIL's executive director, said the addition of the Jesuits has worked well for the UIL but that league members still feel it wouldn't be a good fit for smaller schools. Texas is one of the few states nationally that doesn't allow open competition between public and private schools.
"If you ask the schools that competed against them ... they will tell you that they've been a good partner," said Breithaupt, who was the UIL's athletic director when the private school policy was adopted.
Alief Taylor coach Jeff Durnford is among them. His team lost to Strake Jesuit three times this season, although one of those was a two-point game that was probably the Crusaders' biggest scare. Durnford doesn't disagree with those who argue that Strake Jesuit has advantages over public schools, but he said coaches and players don't dwell on it. In fact, they don't even talk about it.
"It's really like any other school," Durnford said. "Otherwise, you'd be worrying about things you can't control."
Three Division I-bound players lead the Crusaders, a senior-laden crew with plenty of playoff experience from the past couple of seasons. Joey Brooks (Notre Dame) averages 22.6 points, and Tim Frazier (Penn State) scores 15.9 per game. Steve Rogers is the fifth-leading scorer at 7.9 per game but is the team's most accurate 3-point shooter (40 percent).
This isn't the first time either of the Jesuits has qualified for a state tournament, but it's easily the highest-profile occurrence. The only thing that could top Strake Jesuit's appearance this weekend would be a trip to a 5A football championship game for one of these two schools.
Six years after the Jesuits were allowed in, this watershed moment appears more a topic of conversation rather than a topic of debate.
"For a lot of people, that's water under the bridge now," Durnford said. "You can not like it, but in the end you're going to have to deal with it."
Jones says fans are dealing with it just fine. The catcalls and trash talk have been limited.
"The only thing we ever get on a consistent basis ... is the other school to say, 'We have girls,"' Jones said with a laugh. "And that's OK with us."