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Wootten returns to sideline in Hagerstown

November 27, 1996

By SHELDON SHEALER

Staff Writer

As he lay in a bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital, legendary DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten longed to hear the screech of sneakers and the thud of a basketball crashing against a hardwood floor.

"Coaching rivals, former players, students, they all came to see me. It blew my mind," said Wootten, the nation's second-winningest high school basketball coach, recalling the days after a liver transplant had given him new life. "When I was a little down, having a bad day, I thought of them and I had to pull through.

"I had two goals when I realized I was going to make it - when I knew I was out of the woods," he said. "First, on November 16, I wanted to dance at my son's wedding. I did that. Number two, I wanted to be ready for basketball. That's worked out, too."

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The next step in Wootten's compelling recovery takes place Saturday night at St. Maria Goretti High School, when he returns to start his 41st season as DeMatha's coach, guiding the Stags in the semifinal round of the Mid-Atlantic Invitational Tournament.

The three-day, six-team MAIT starts Friday with Philadelphia St. John Neumann playing Chambersburg at 6:30 p.m. Goretti faces Charlotte (N.C.) Providence at 8.

On Saturday, Friday's first-round losers play at 5:30 p.m. DeMatha gets the Neumann-Chambersburg winner at 7, and the Goretti-Providence winner takes on Xavierian of New York City at 8:30. The third-place game is Sunday at 1 p.m., followed by the championship at 2:45.

DeMatha is the MAIT defending champion. A title this year, which would take two victories, would vault the 65-year-old Wootten past recently retired Bill Krueger on the all-time high school win list. Krueger, who capped his 38-year coaching career at Houston Clear Lake, finished with a record of 1,096-250. Wootten is 1,095-163 in 40 seasons. Robert Hughes of Ft. Worth (Texas) Dunbar is a close third, at 1,093-196. Ralph Tasker of Hobbs (N.M.) is fourth with a 1,082-280 mark.

"He's one of the class people in the game and I have the good fortune of knowing him," Goretti coach Cokey Robertson said of Wootten. "Watching his teams since the mid-1970s, the goal was always to get your kids to play like his kids. My thoughts were, it wouldn't be DeMatha without him."

The prospects of DeMatha without Wootten were very real this summer.

For years, Wootten had suffered from primary biliary cirrhosis, a liver ailment that affects the immune system. He collapsed on July 7 while attending a basketball camp at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., and underwent liver transplant surgery three days later.

He was discharged from Johns Hopkins on Aug. 9.

"I don't think you can be any closer to signing off than he was," Robertson said. "I guess it was one of God's miracles. It's hard to believe how far down he was. It's amazing to see the progress."

Robertson said he noticed a decline in Wootten's health during last year's MAIT, but didn't think it was serious.

"He didn't have that spark," said Robertson, adding that each night after the MAIT, a reception was held for coaches and tournament officials. Robertson doesn't recall Wootten attending any of the receptions last year. "It was like he was just covering the minimum."

Robertson visited Wootten during his recovery.

"I'm somewhat a gardener," Robertson said. "I took a package of good, fresh vegetables down to him and told him it would help get him back on the sideline."

"There was no doubt he would be back," said Neal Murphy, DeMatha's assistant coach. "He met every milestone the doctors set for him ahead of schedule."

Wootten no longer teaches at DeMatha, and he arrives at school in the afternoon just to run the basketball program.

"I'm not as physically active. I'm not out there demonstrating moves," Wootten said. "I told the players at times (during games) I might sit down for a while, but mentally, I'm with you."

Thanksgiving Day often serves as the final family gathering for the Wootten family before the start of basketball season. He said his three daughters and one of two sons will be at his Prince George's County home today.

"This Thanksgiving and Christmas will have tremendous significance," Wootten said. "It's obviously great to be in the situation to coach and do what I love to do. The Lord was looking down on me and he must have said I could coach a little longer and I'm delighted."

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