As a member of Good Counsel’s basketball team the past two years, Byron Hawkins grew accustomed to playing in the packed gyms and intense environment that have long been a staple of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.
But this past summer, after Hawkins’s attempts to enroll at a prep school and then Wise fell through, his friend and AAU teammate Jon Davis asked him to sacrifice the big WCAC stage for a slightly cozier one that is quickly stockpiling top-tier talent. Davis, who played for National Christian last season, wanted Hawkins to join him at Clinton Christian, an Upper Marlboro K-12 private school with an enrollment of 330 students and a basketball team that went 4-16 last season.
“I thought I’d be really bored because, you know, at a small school, I didn’t think it’d be as high-spirited,” Hawkins said. “But it does have that, just in a smaller package.”
Bundled in that package are six high-level transfers from perennial area powers such as O’Connell and St. John’s and two first-year high school coaches in AAU stalwarts Mike Sumner and Christian Cole. All are hoping the combination of explosive talent and proven coaching turns Clinton Christian into the newest powerhouse in the crowded Washington area hoops scene.
The Capitol Christian Academy girls’ team is also looking for immediate success. Former H.D. Woodson coach Henry Anglin and eight of his former Woodson players, along with a transfer from Riverdale Baptist and another from John Carroll, migrated with him to a school tucked away in Jericho Christian’s sprawling church campus in Hyattsville.
In a basketball landscape annually dominated by WCAC thoroughbreds, these tiny private schools in Maryland are attracting some of the area’s best players despite their lack of basketball tradition. Their goal is to start one.
Capitol Christian, closed in 2010 because of financial difficulties, was bought and reestablished on the campus of Jericho Christian Academy prior to this year. As part of its rebuilding and rebranding, the school’s administrators chose to build a strong athletic reputation for the school of about 100 high school students with the hope that successful teams will increase visibility and draw interest to its academic offerings.
Capitol Christian reached out to Anglin, who coached H.D. Woodson last year for part of its run to a seventh straight D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title before being placed on administrative leave in February for his involvement in a physical altercation following a game. Once Anglin agreed to be Capitol Christian’s first girls’ coach, he brought on Saladin Reese as an assistant, allowing Anglin to combine his AAU ties to the D.C. Cobras with Reese’s connections at D.C. Sol and tap into the extensive network of rising stars in the area.
Anglin says there are no hard feelings, though a few of his players say former Woodson teammates are “salty” about the move. Woodson Athletic Director LaQurisha Gray could not be reached to comment.
Anglin says Capitol Christian gives players opportunities they would not have at Woodson. “It’s more competitive,” senior Najee Smith said. “We get to play the top teams and show what we got.”
As a team not affiliated with a conference, Anglin has the flexibility to schedule games against some of the nation’s top teams. But while Anglin said the school has provided some money, his team has had to fundraise extensively to cover travel expenses.
Successful coach Stu Vetter encountered his share of challenges as he worked to establish basketball success at Flint Hill, St. John’s Prospect Hall and Montrose Christian — all of which had little to no athletic tradition prior to his arrival.
“If you want to build a program that’s going to endure over time, you need to establish guidelines that fall within the league or state rules and do things the right way because you want to establish credibility and stability,” said Vetter, who resigned in May after 14 seasons at Montrose. “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. But at the same time, you don’t want to sacrifice your credibility and cut corners to just win a game or two. You can build a good team in a year, but it takes time to establish a good program.”
Cole, who has trained former NBA player Nolan Smith and the Miami Heat’s Norris Cole, hoped to start building credibility with a tough schedule for Clinton Christian, but he said he encountered resistance from coaches on the local and national levels.
“Whenever you’re trying to build something and it’s new, people have got to take shots on why it’s this good, this fast,” said Cole, who played guard at New Mexico State. “But at this point, they don’t really know how good we’ll be. We don’t know how good we’re going to be.
“They’ll throw out the comments about us being an AAU team or we’ve got fifth-year players, so our job as coaches is to make sure everything’s in order when they ask about it. I think those questions will be answered in time.”
Clinton Christian’s players aren’t as patient when discussing their expectations and goals for the season. Along with competing for the Capital Beltway Athletic Association title against schools like Riverdale Baptist and National Christian, the Eagles want to elevate their stock collectively, by increasing the team’s visibility, and individually, in terms of their status as college prospects.
“I expect us to be really good, and we would have liked to have played more of the top teams in the area because we feel we’re better,” Davis said. “My biggest thing is getting ready for college, and I think the other guys feel the same. I felt like this was the best place for me to do that because of [Cole’s] knowledge and what he can teach us.”
With Davis, Hawkins (Towson) and Leroy Butts (Rutgers) already committed to play college basketball and players such as Allante Holston, Develle Phillips and Ahsante Shivers garnering Division I interest, Clinton Christian principal Carlos Williams is confident in his vision of elevating school spirit through success on the court.
Williams knew Cole from his days playing under Sumner as a member of the D.C. Assault AAU program, but even he admits to being pleasantly surprised by Cole’s ability to draw in and connect with his players.
“Schools that we had played the last 15 years now don’t want to play us. We used to be everybody’s homecoming or easy game,” said Williams, who is in his third year as the school’s principal. “Now my dad’s been bugging me about the games, students at other schools are talking. The buzz is out there, and it’s exciting.”