This didn't seem like basketball country. Rolling hills, plush greenery, dead silence except for birds chirping in the distance.
Carl Weaver grew up playing in Detroit schoolyards, within chain-link fences at the base of towering apartment buildings, as car horns and sirens provide a pulsating soundtrack.
But Middleburg? This was horse country.
In less than three years, Notre Dame Academy has been transformed from a rural prep school, best known for its high academic standards, into a regional basketball power. With adidas outfitting its players' feet and a coaching staff with international recruiting appeal, the school has dispelled Weaver's notion that top-shelf high school basketball can't exist outside the city's hustle and bustle.
"I remember first coming out here," said Weaver, a Notre Dame junior guard who was recruited from Detroit, "and I couldn't believe it being out in the middle of nowhere."
Weaver isn't the only transplant. The 14-member regional varsity roster includes three players from the Central African Republic, one from Cameroon and one from England. There are two players from relatively nearby Maryland--Easton and Frederick. All are recipients of need-based scholarships that cover the $9,800 tuition.
"It brings a different culture to our school than what we're used to," said senior Jennifer Magalhaes, the Student Council president and Manassas resident. "Everybody gets really interested in their lives. This was the first time we had kids from the inner-city tell us what it's like. And it's a lot different from life out here. It kind of makes you realize how fortunate we are out here.
"It opens your mind and makes you willing to accept other people."
Notre Dame is still far from a diverse community. In a school of 198 students, there are only eight African Americans; all are basketball recruits. There are only two black faculty members, Mike Teasley and Adam Perry, and both are assistant basketball coaches.
It would seem difficult for these students to blend in with the rest of the school.
"It's easy to feel [like you're a hired gun]," said Weaver, who enrolled this year. "But I look at it this way: They're trying to help me [get a college scholarship], and I'm trying to help them win. It's all equal in the end.
"I adjusted pretty well, but it was way different from the city. I had never been around a lot of white kids growing up. But everyone has treated me great here."
While their height separates them from their classmates, there is a consensus opinion on the campus that the players have assimilated themselves into the student body, even though huge chunks of their free time are spent practicing and traveling."
"Sure they stick out, but everyone accepts them and is friends with them," said senior Priscilla Mendonca, a Fairfax resident who transferred into the school midway through last year. "They have their own clique, but that's high school."
"These guys are not living in an ivory tower off some place else," said Jean-Loup Combemale, who has taught French at Notre Dame for three years. "They're not isolated prima donnas who are sitting around and playing basketball. They are part of the student body. This is a chance for them to play, but it is also a chance to get a premier education. We want to give them a chance they otherwise wouldn't have.
"This is a college prep school. You cannot graduate from here unless you are accepted into a college."
That was one of the chief reasons why Sherrod Teasley enrolled at Notre Dame last year (his older brother, Mike, joined the coaching staff at the same time). He had been playing closer to his Frederick, Md., home at St. John's of Prospect Hall but feared he wasn't in the proper environment to prepare him for college.
"The academics here I knew were much better, and I would have a better chance of qualifying," said Teasley, who since has achieved a score above the minimum required by the NCAA for participation. "They prepared me for my SATs, and I know that if I had stayed at St. John's, I wouldn't have passed my SATs."
Senior David Aliu, a native of Liverpool, England, enrolled at Notre Dame last December. He had been in the United States only once, and that was to play in a summer tournament in Las Vegas. It was there he realized Americans exhibited the same passion for the game he did.
"Basketball is taken a lot more seriously than it is back in England," Aliu said. "Here, you prepare for a team months in advance. You also can't play basketball at a high level in England. You can't get a scholarship for college [in England] through basketball."
Notre Dame was an all-girls boarding school that became coeducational for the 1991-92 school year. After a couple of years in the new format, the school's administration and board of trustees sought to increase enrollment. They knew the best way to do that was to advertise the school's name as much as possible. Ed Hoffman, who was very successful as the coach at St. John's of Prospect Hall, occasionally had been helping out with the Notre Dame program and rediscovered his zest for coaching. He and his longtime assistant, Larry Cullinane, arrived in Middleburg for the 1997-98 season ready to work their magic.
"This can happen at any place. It's just lucky that it happened here at Notre Dame," said athletic director J.D. Almond, who has been with the school for six years. "When you attract such high-profile coaches as Ed Hoffman and Larry Cullinane, they have contacts and the know-how all around the world. Kids will follow these types of people."
But not only would basketball players follow a successful program, so would students who were not athletes. This was all about making Notre Dame a more attractive school to all students.
"The goal was to boost enrollment and get the school's name out in the community," said Cullinane, who became head coach this season when Hoffman was named assistant headmaster of the school. "And it's clear that if the athletic teams have success and get some publicity, the name [of the school] will get out in the community."
Skeptics could claim it's purely coincidental, but nevertheless, Notre Dame's enrollment has increased from 140 in 1997-98, when Hoffman and Cullinane arrived, to 198 this year.
"When you drive up that [three-quarter-mile] driveway [onto the campus], it's not a tough sell," Cullinane said. "It's a real school. There's no trouble selling this campus to any student. In the cities, the distractions are a lot closer. We don't have that situation here."
There has been a dramatic change in student morale not only on campus but when they are off, dispersed in their hometowns. The average Notre Dame student commutes 45 minutes each way.
"It's also promoted a lot of school spirit," Magalhaes said. "There really wasn't much when I came here, but since they've been winning, much more people are going out to the games.
"It definitely brings more attention to our school. I tell someone that I go to Notre Dame and they say, 'Oh, that school with the team.' "
If there can be a drawback to the enrollment and attention windfalls enjoyed by Notre Dame, it can be that the school's tradition may evolve from that of an academic to an athletic power.
"There's mixed emotions," said guard Bobby Weismiller, who is in his fifth year at Notre Dame. "A lot of people like the attention, but there are those who don't want the school to be known as just a basketball school."
Believe it or not, the team's presence might have boosted the caliber of the curriculum.
"There's more programs athletically and academically because there's more students and bigger classes," Magalhaes said. "I'm taking AP [Advanced Placement] chemistry, and that wasn't available when I first came here" in 1996.
Before creating the regional varsity team in the 1997-98 season, Notre Dame was like many high schools, offering varsity and junior varsity programs participating in the Delany Athletic Conference. Now the Dragons are playing teams not only from the Washington metropolitan area but also from as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Toronto.
"Going into my freshman year [1995-96]," Weismiller said, "I had hoped the program would become big time. We would play one or two good teams but just get blown out. It was more about having fun than it was serious. Now the program is elevated in the way I had hoped it would be, but I had no idea it would be like this, this big."
NOTRE DAME DRAGONS
* Last season: 24-3 (Virginia Independent School League champion).
* Coach: Larry Cullinane (first season).
* Top returning players: G Sherrod Teasley, 6-4, Sr. (17.6 ppg, 7.0 apg, 5.0 rpg, first-team All-Extra); G Bobby Weismiller, 6-3, Sr.; G Shelton Hawkins, 6-4, Sr. (second team All-Extra); F David Aliu, 6-7, Sr.
* Key departures: G Jamal Gilchrist (16.2 ppg, 8.1 apg, 4.0 spg, all-extra Player of the Year), F Ben Bates.
* New faces: G, David Carter, 5-10, Jr.; G Carl Weaver, 5-10, Jr.; C Armel Minyem, 6-10, Jr.; F Bobby Thorsen, 6-6, Jr.
After two years of laying the groundwork for a national power program, Notre Dame Academy will play its toughest schedule yet, with games against Mt. Zion Christian Academy (Durham, N.C.), St. Patrick's (Elizabeth, N.J.) and Newport (Kensington), to name a few. "I think everyone will agree that this is probably one of the hardest schedules in the country," senior guard Bobby Weismiller said.
The schedule's strength may prevent the Dragons from equalling their 24-3 mark of a year ago. But don't think for a moment this team lacks the talent of a regional power. Guards Sherrod Teasley and Shelton Hawkins are exceptional athletes, who have consistent jumpers and the ability to drive the lane. Weismiller, a sweet-shooting lefthander, is the Dragons' top outside threat and does much of his scoring from beyond the arc.
The most difficult position to gauge on this team is the low post. Points in the paint will come from 6-7 forwards David Aliu and Dan Heselbarth. But a pair of juniors, 6-8 Guy Saragba and 6-10 Armel Minyem, both from Africa, are most intriguing. Both are projects whose development might dictate how well Notre Dame fares against some of their top opponents, which also sport similarly big men.
26-27 at James Glover Memorial Classic
3 at Laurel Senior (W, 71-66)
7 at Bishop McNamara (W, 66-62)
9 Mt. Zion Academy (in Richmond)
11 Blue Ridge
15 at Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro)
17-18 Newport School Basketball Mixer (Kensington)
27-29 Chapel Hill High School Tournament (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
7 at Ryan Academy (Norfolk)
8 at Shenandoah Valley Academy (New Market)
9 at St. Patrick's (Elizabeth, N.J.)
13-16 at North America Invitational Tournament (Toronto)
20 Riverdale Baptist
28 at Blue Ridge (St. George)
31 Mt. Zion
2 Gwynn Lake Prep
5 Ryan Academy
10-12 St. James Invitational Tournament (Hagerstown)
17 Gwynn Lake Prep
21 Our Savior New American
Notre Dame Academy has netted some players who hail from well beyond the borders of Loudoun and Fauquier counties.
1999-2000 REGIONAL VARSITY ROSTER
Player: David Aliu
Hometown: Liverpool, England
Player: David Carter
Player: Grant Flowers
Player: Shelton Hawkins
Hometown: Easton, Md.
Player: Dan Heselbarth
Player: Joe Horgan
Player: Armel Minyem
Player: Guy Saragba
Hometown: Central African Republic
Player: Christian Siris
Hometown: Central African Republic
Player: Sherrod Teasley
Hometown: Frederick, Md.
Player: Robert Thorsen
Player: Patrick Vuonang
Hometown: Central African Republic
Player: Carl Weaver
Player: Bobby Weismiller
CAPTION: Sherrod Teasley says he transferred to Notre Dame from St. John's of Prospect Hall because "I would have a better chance of qualifying" for college scholarship.
CAPTION: Dan Heselbarth, left, Armel Minyen get in some practice for Notre Dame, a rural prep school located in Middleburg horse country that now has become highly regarded for its basketball.
CAPTION: David Aliu (50) enrolled at Notre Dame from Liverpool, England, and is among handful of players from other countries.