Gonzaga's sophomore trio goes the distance together

By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 1:55 AM

The rugged 6-foot-6 forward with a delicate shooting touch is from rural South Carolina, the son of a college basketball coach. The lanky swingman with sensational athletic ability grew up in Seattle, the son of a former NFL running back. Of sixth-ranked Gonzaga's three sophomore stars, only point guard Nate Britt has a rather ordinary backstory.

Coming together from various parts of the country, though, Britt, Kris Jenkins and D.J. Fenner have provided the Eagles with an unusual amount of talent and leadership for such a young group of players as they try to take their team to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title.

"They all have an opportunity to be high Division I basketball players," said Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner, whose team will host a WCAC quarterfinal on Friday against either St. Mary's Ryken or Bishop Ireton.

Asked who is recruiting each player, Turner quickly responded, "Who isn't?"

Virginia Tech and Xavier have offered scholarships to Britt and Jenkins. Georgetown and Miami also have offered Britt and plenty of others are recruiting both players. Fenner's list is a bit different, with many top teams in the Pacific-10 Conference keeping tabs.

With three top young players - all of whom repeated a grade at an elite middle school in Bethesda, where they never lost a football or basketball game - Gonzaga figures to be among the Washington area's best teams for the next two years. (Another sophomore, guard Charles Glover, also starts for the Eagles; he too repeated a year in middle school.) Together, the sophomores have led the Eagles (22-6) to 15 victories in their past 17 games.

"They're pretty good," quipped one opposing coach, "for juniors."

Fenner, a slender 6-6 and 207 pounds, grew up on the other side of the country, moved to the Washington area to live with his grandparents and attend middle school, then returned to Seattle as a high school freshman last year. This summer, though, he and his father, Derrick - a former Oxon Hill High standout football player who spent nine seasons in the NFL - moved back across the country to live with Derrick Fenner's parents in Springdale.

Jenkins grew up in Norway, S.C., and was in fifth grade when he met Britt at an AAU tournament.

"You know how it is when you play against a really good team and you become cool with their best player," said Britt, a 6-1 guard who plays with plenty of poise.

Jenkins spent the next summer living with the Britts in Upper Marlboro so that he and Nate Britt could play for the same travel team.

While Jenkins returned to South Carolina for the following school year, his parents soon were discussing having Kris move in with the Britts.

"Around my way, I'm the dictator at my house and I run a tight ship," said Britt's father, also named Nate. "He had chores and things he was required to do. When he went back, his mom contacted me and said, 'For the few months he's been with you, I see a change in my son and I like the change in my son.' "

Nate Britt, a detective in the D.C. police department's financial crimes unit, discussed the matter with his wife, Melody.

"It was difficult to move him out of my house, that was the hard part," said Felicia Jenkins, who has two younger daughters and is the women's basketball coach at Division II Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. "My main concerns were that he had his roots, had his discipline. When he was in the sixth and seventh grade, we were constantly on the road."

So during the winter of 2007, Jenkins moved in with the Britts, who became his legal guardians. Nate Britt attended Mater Dei School, where he repeated sixth grade when he enrolled at the Bethesda school.

After Jenkins finished the 2006-07 school year at Kettering Middle School, he too enrolled at Mater Dei and repeated the seventh grade there.

A growing number of standout athletes repeat a grade in middle school, giving them an extra year to mature in the classroom and in athletics without affecting high school or collegiate eligibility. The Britts and Jenkins, though, said their decisions to repeat grades were based on academic reasons.

"Some people were saying it is about basketball, but that's because they don't know us," said the elder Nate Britt, though his son said the idea to go to Mater Dei and repeat a grade was first mentioned to him by 2010 All-Met guard Markel Starks, now a freshman at Georgetown.

"We never dropped down to play against inferior talent. We always played an age group up. We wanted to make sure these guys got a jump start on the education process."

Fenner joined Britt and Jenkins at Mater Dei in the 2007-08 school year, also repeating the seventh grade.

"It was sort of my choice," Fenner said. "I took a [placement] test and the teachers were like I could easily be in the eighth grade but I told them I wanted to be with Kris and Nate in the seventh grade. A lot of students get held back at Mater Dei. I wanted to be in the same class as Kris and Nate for all sorts of reasons. You have school, basketball and some other stuff, but mainly school and basketball."

After the three dominated middle school opposition, it was thought they would play together in high school - most of the region's top private schools recruited all three.

But while Jenkins and Britt enrolled at Gonzaga, Fenner made a last-minute decision to move back to Seattle.

After one year in the Pacific Northwest, though, Fenner returned to join his buddies at Gonzaga, partly because Derrick Fenner convinced his son that he would be better challenged playing basketball in the Washington area.

"I was doing well, too, but the competition [in Seattle] was different," Fenner said. "It was hard to compare."

It took a few months for Fenner to acclimate to his new surroundings, but the trio now appears to be hitting its stride. Jenkins averages 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, Britt 13.4 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds and Fenner 7.8 points and 5.7 rebounds coming off the bench.

"It's coincidence we're all from different places and came together to play basketball and became great friends," Fenner said.

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