Of the unprecedented four consecutive D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association titles for the Cardozo boys' basketball team, the fourth one may have been the most difficult. The players heard too many reasons too many times why they weren't supposed to win the conference and return to the City Title game this season.
But first-year coach William Davis wasn't about to pile on. Davis knew not much experienced talent was back this season, so he told his players just to stick to their fundamental strengths -- defense and rebounding.
That is how the Clerks (16-7) overwhelmed Eastern, Dunbar and M.M. Washington in the conference tournament en route to their title and another appearance in the City Title game.
"A lot of people compared us to last year's team and the teams before that," Davis said. "My thing was, I didn't want the players to get discouraged by that, and feel they needed to prove themselves.
"At that particular time, we huddled up as said, 'Let's just do the best we could.' "
Davis admitted it took his players a while to believe that. Besides, he had plenty of other worries.
He didn't get the job until October, just a couple weeks before the first practice. When he got there, he had to handle a team shaken by the arrest of one of its would-be returning players, junior Eugene Huff, who was charged as an adult with assault with intent to murder while armed from a Sept. 21 shooting outside the school.
Huff is still being held without bond as he awaits trial.
Davis didn't think twice about letting that distract his players.
"It was never mentioned," he said, noting that six weeks had passed between the arrest and the start of practice. "My guys were just committed to staying focused."
Instead, Davis simply turned to a player who embodied the underdog label of his team -- 5-foot-2 junior point guard, Dominique Aull.
Aull had not played a varsity game prior to this season. He didn't appear to be much of a threat, and was always the shortest player on the court.
But it was Aull's ball-handling, clutch free throw shooting and surprising outside stroke that helped him stand out in the DCIAA semifinals and final. He scored 33 points in the two games, including a career-high 20 against M.M. Washington in the final. He scored 21 of those points in the second halves of games.
"It's simple," Aull said. "We play hard. We don't lose our composure."
And slapping his chest, Aull added, "And you can't measure this."