It is easy to see how Potomac Falls junior point guard DeMario McCleary, who stands just 5-foot-6, would feel his talents are underappreciated and overlooked. During his first two years at the Sterling school, McCleary couldn't grow up fast enough as he reluctantly starred on the Panthers' junior varsity team.
After his games, he would watch with exasperation as the varsity team struggled mightily to win seven games in two seasons. McCleary shook his head and second-guessed play after play as he sat in the bleachers, watching the main event in a shirt and tie.
"I was ready to crack," McCleary said. "I knew I was good enough to play on varsity. You think JV doesn't mean anything when you see those varsity guys going at it. You want to be playing at 7:30, not 5:30, and that hurt. I was basically embarrassed playing at 5:30."
But now McCleary has no reason to hang his head. Having spent two years refining his fundamentals and developing a chemistry with 10 junior varsity teammates who now make up the Panthers' entire varsity roster, McCleary is one of the most exciting players in the Northwestern District. He leads Potomac Falls into this week's Loudoun Times-Mirror Tournament at Park View High School.
McCleary has a hand in more than half the Panthers' scoring, thanks to his dazzling dribbling, pinpoint passes and silky shooting. He leads Potomac Falls in scoring (14.8 ppg), assists (3.5 apg), three-point shooting (15 of 32) and steals (3.3 spg). While he has certainly improved from last year, McCleary is not an overnight sensation. So his varsity success begs the question: What was McCleary doing on the junior varsity last year as the Panthers' varsity went 5-17?
"It was a tough decision whether to play him on varsity or JV last year," said Potomac Falls Coach Jeff Hawes, whose team is 2-4 overall, 1-4 in district. "When I was building this program, I knew I needed a point guard to get us going. And he was the first real point guard we've had. I wanted to make sure he developed under the right conditions."
McCleary arrived at Potomac Falls in 1997, the year the school opened, with strictly schoolyard skills and raw fundamentals. "He played really wild, really playground," Hawes said. "He wanted every two points or every pass to be the prettiest thing you ever saw."
Hawes had a plan for his burgeoning program. He knew it would take a couple of years before the Panthers could realistically compete, especially since their first two years were spent playing Group AAA teams in the Concorde District. Players such as McCleary would be overwhelmed by the physical and emotional maturity of their opponents. It would be easy to get discouraged after the inevitable turnovers and mental lapses.
Furthermore, McCleary would only play sparingly on the varsity team, while he could routinely play all 32 minutes on the junior varsity team.
"I didn't want to destroy his confidence," Hawes said. "Hindsight is always 20/20, but maybe he's playing as well as he is right now because he stayed at JV. He needed to be in game situations, like on the [free-throw] line, down one with 10 seconds to play, or up three with 30 seconds to go. He wasn't going to get that just playing a quarter or two on the varsity."
While it is easy for a coach to devise a long-term plan like this one, it's not so easy for a wide-eyed teenager like McCleary to understand. The summer in between his freshman and sophomore years, McCleary went to every basketball camp that would let him in, often going up against older, more mature players.
"I went to all the summer camps and thought I had an amazing tryout [for varsity]," McCleary said. "So when I didn't make varsity, it crushed me because of all the work I had done all summer. I thought [Hawes] was trying to hurt me. I started to think, 'If only I went to another school.' "
McCleary's patience was given its toughest test at last year's holiday tournament at Park View. He and junior varsity teammate Jason Lutman were called up to the varsity for the event, and even though both watched from the end of the bench and played mop-up minutes, it was a position neither wanted to surrender.
Being sent back to the junior varsity team "hurt him, probably more than it hurt me," said Lutman, who now starts at forward for the Panthers' varsity. "But I could tell it made him work harder. . . . And we talked about it afterward, how we thought we should have been there. But he went back down knowing he could hang with the varsity."
Potomac Falls junior varsity coach Brian Blubaugh paid close attention to McCleary's progress last season, keeping Hawes's plan in the front of his mind. Blubaugh knew his young point guard was frustrated, but he was impressed at how those feelings stayed off the court.
"He never let [his frustration] surface," Blubaugh said. "I knew he was disappointed, but I never needed to soothe him. He went out there and did his business."
Last May, McCleary had his next chance to show Hawes that he was ready not only to play on the varsity but also to carry the team. The Panthers' summer team went to a weekend tournament at Hampden-Sydney College and won seven of nine games, with McCleary dominating the court.
"It was at that point that I realized he could be a really good player and that I felt we did the right thing," Hawes said.
But McCleary knows he is still easily overlooked and thus keeps working. He said he knows the odds are against him, whether he's driving the lane against an opponent a foot taller than him or seeking out a college scholarship.
"I know that because of my size," McCleary said, "I have to give 125 percent; 110 percent isn't even enough."
CAPTION: Potomac Falls point guard DeMario McCleary eludes a diving effort by Park View center Jeff Schwalm.
CAPTION: DeMario McCleary of Potomac Falls pushes the ball against Park View. After two years on JV, he leads the team in scoring, assists, three-point shooting and steals.