Even though Brittany Russell was a key player as a freshman last year at Stone Bridge, the area public school basketball program with the most promising future, she felt she would not attain her goal of playing in college if she remained there.
Russell thought college recruiters would overlook public schools in favor of private schools that assemble teams with players who share Russell's dream.
So she followed one of her basketball mentors to Notre Dame Academy this season, where former Loudoun County boys' coach Chick Bushrod has been charged with helping to bring the girls' program to the level of the boys' team.
"It's definitely not as easy at public schools," Russell said. "We get a lot more exposure here, and we play tougher and tougher teams. [Colleges] bring scouts, and that allows them to see us easier."
If the Dragons keep playing the way they are, even more recruiters will be visiting the Middleburg campus. The 69-35 victory over the Marriott charter school Monday was Notre Dame's seventh in a row and ran its record to 13-4, the winningest season in five years.
The Dragons are not playing top-level competition such as Bishop McNamara, St. John's and Riverdale Baptist, elite girls' basketball programs in the Washington area with national reputations. Most of the Dragons' opponents are schools with enrollments similar to theirs, about 280.
But just as Notre Dame revamped its boys' program six years ago with the ambition of becoming one that can attract players from well outside the metropolitan area, so it is transforming the image of its girls' program.
"Notre Dame hasn't had a good record for a while," said Russell, who leads the Dragons in scoring at 16.9 points per game, "but we want to get it up to the level of the boys."
For now, the Dragons must rely on enticing area players, such as Russell, from public schools to lay the program's foundation. Then it can attract players from farther away, which has not been difficult.
Notre Dame sells recruits on its ability to schedule games and tournaments with little restriction on playing sites and quantity. Bushrod hopes that the Dragons will play 40 games by season's end. The school also notes that its smaller student body allows players to interact more freely and form closely-knit team.
"I just love the private school game over the public school game," said sophomore forward Elizabeth Lipovsky, who averages 11.6 points per game and would have attended had she not enrolled at Notre Dame as a freshman. "Sure, you're missing out on a bigger school, but you get a much closer community. You're with the same kids everyday in school, and then you go out to practice with them."
Senior guard Christine Forgues is one of a few upperclass players on this team with a sophomore core. She played her freshman season at Broad Run in the fall and transferred to Notre Dame in the winter. She is thrilled with Notre Dame's decision to expand the program.
"This program, it seems people here are much more willing to work at it," Forgues said. "Before, it would be that you'd play just to get credit. It didn't matter if we won or lost."
After being asked to resign at Loudoun County in April 2000 after his teams went 57-99 in seven seasons, Bushrod gave no thought to working at a private school, much less at one with a girls' program.
But Notre Dame hired him the next summer to assist with the boys, and he kept his job as a physical education teacher at Leesburg Elementary.
"I didn't really consider coaching private schools until I got the offer here," Bushrod said. "I'd always been involved in public schools, and I didn't think it was available to me. It was a matter of who you know, and I didn't know anybody."
While at Loudoun County, Bushrod said, he often shook his head when some of the area's top basketball talent left public schools for Notre Dame. Since arriving at the school, he understands why.
"What was hurting me was that I was working with kids in the neighborhood, and then they left the community," Bushrod said. "But I always heard that you've got to do what's in your best interest. Kids have to do it, and coaches have to do it, too."
The bond formed by Bushrod and his players not only enhances the experience but also improves team chemistry. The Dragons play on the road often during the regular season, whereas public school teams might not have that chance unless they go deep into the postseason.
"I played a season at a public school, and it definitely makes a difference," Forgues said. "It's a closeness that you can only get at a place like this."