Liz Reed was settling into the bleachers ahead of the junior varsity game when an unusual sight snagged her attention.
Reed, the head coach of Jefferson’s girls varsity team, watched closely as Marshall sent a 6-foot-3 center out for the jump ball. She had rare size for any high school girl, let alone a JV player. Reed thought it must have been a mistake and that the girl would soon leave the court and start stretching for the varsity game later that night.
Then she saw Clara Ford go up and down a few times, and it started to make a bit more sense.
“At first I was like, ‘How the heck does Marshall have a girl this tall on their JV?’” Reed recalled Sunday. “But then from the start of the game it was pretty clear that she really hadn’t played much basketball.”
That was when Ford was still a stranger to the Virginia basketball community, and basketball was still very much a stranger to her. Now she is heading into her senior season as a surefire Division I recruit, just three years after she was fumbling around the court and trying, fruitlessly, to match size with skill.
Ford started playing for Reed with the Matrix, a northern Virginia AAU program, after her sophomore season. She averaged 19.6 points per game for Marshall as a junior last year. After a strong AAU showing this past spring and summer, she has scholarship offers from Boston College, Temple, Cornell, James Madison, Hofstra, Wofford and Gardner-Webb. She has already played in a camp at Cornell, taken an unofficial visit to James Madison, and is planning official visits to Boston College and Hofstra in September.
“When I started playing basketball at Marshall, I just wanted to make the team to meet some new people, get adjusted to the area, make some friends,” Ford, who is now 6-foot-4, said Sunday. “That really was the only motivation for me playing basketball. I could have never imagined all of this would happen.”
Going into her freshman year, Ford’s family had just moved from Morocco to northern Virginia. Her dad is a foreign service officer and the Fords have been bouncing around the globe her entire life: Clara was born in Atlanta, moved to Washington D.C. as a baby, to Suriname when she was two, South Africa two years after that, Madagascar two and a half years later, and finally to Morocco for a four-year stay.
It was in Morocco that she started playing organized sports at a school with 500 total students from kindergarten to 12th grade. She liked volleyball and also dabbled in badminton, the game of choice among her peers. Then, when she was in eighth grade, the school’s high school basketball coach said she was too tall to not be on the team.
So Ford joined, and a tournament in Switzerland endeared her to the sport. But she never expected to be all that good at it.
“At that point no one had taught me any skills or anything, and I was honestly just on the team because I was tall,” Ford said. “So I was pretty trash. We didn’t practice all that often, and it was really just recreational.”
Her return to the United States offered a basketball culture shock. Girls played on AAU teams and trained year-round. Playing for Marshall meant daily practices and a full schedule against stiff competition. She steadily improved throughout her freshman season and was bumped up to varsity as a sophomore when Mike Trivisonno became the new head coach.
At the beginning of that year, Reed watched film on Marshall and saw a long center blocking shots, finishing around the rim and beating guards down the floor on the fast break. She wondered how Marshall had pulled in another girl with superior height. Then she realized it was the same girl from that JV game.
“I’d say like 99 percent of the Division I girls who I’ve known over the last 10 years, you knew who they were in middle school,” Reed said. “You knew the star players were coming as freshmen, and those were the kids who ended up being the big Division I recruits. It’s extremely rare for a girl with little to no experience to develop in high school and get to that level.
“Girls physically develop younger and there’s a saying in girls basketball that once you hit 15 or 16 that’s who you are, that’s the kind of player you’re going to be. Clara is essentially the exact opposite of that.”
She has spent these last three years building strengths and patching holes in her still-developing game. Reed used to have her Thomas Jefferson players intentionally foul Ford because it was almost a guarantee that she would brick the two free throws. This summer, Reed estimated that Ford sank around 75 percent of her shots from the line.
Ford is also surprising her coaches and teammates all the time, adding new wrinkles and moves to her arsenal. That now includes a smooth up-and-under reverse layup. She recently dunked a tennis ball. Earlier in the summer, Trivisonno watched her casually sink of a handful of three-pointers while working at a youth camp.
And with just her fourth year of organized American basketball coming up, they are all watching closely to see what Ford will do next.
“Clara constantly sees double teams and sometimes even triple teams. I’m serious,” Trivisonno said. “Teams are just set on doing everything they can to not let her score, and all those girls surrounding her have probably been playing the game since they were five years old.”
» Paul VI guard Ashley Owusu has verbally committed to Maryland’s women’s basketball team, she announced in a tweet last Thursday. Owusu, who is ranked 10th in ESPN’s Top 25 for the Class of 2019, reportedly chose the Terrapins over offers from Connecticut, South Carolina, Penn State and West Virginia. The 5-foot-9 guard played for Boo Williams’ 17U team on the AAU circuit this past spring and summer.
» St. Mary’s Ryken guard Wynston Tabbs has verbally committed to Boston College, he announced in a tweet Friday. Tabbs, a 2018 guard who played for Team Melo on the AAU circuit this summer, also had offers from Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Penn State, VCU, UNLV, Cincinnati, George Washington and Towson, among other schools.
» Riverdale Baptist point guard Donovann Toatley has verbally committed to Tennessee-Chattanooga, he announced in a tweet Friday. Toatley, a lightning-quick 5-foot-9 senior, was choosing between offers from Richmond, Robert Morris, Wagner, Jacksonville State and Tennessee-Chattanooga. He played for D.C. Premier’s 17U team this past spring and summer.
» Sidwell Friends wing Saddiq Bey announced his final six schools in a tweet Saturday. Bey’s college decision is now between Miami, Pittsburgh, North Carolina State, Xavier, Northwestern and Princeton. The 6-foot-8 senior had offers from Georgetown, Notre Dame and Florida, among many other schools, and saw his stock rise during the two live evaluation periods this past April. He played for D.C. Premier’s 17U team on the AAU circuit this past spring and summer.
» O’Connell guard Xavier Johnson announced his final six in a tweet Wednesday. Johnson’s college decision is now between Georgetown, Washington, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Creighton and South Florida. The 2018 point guard played for Team Takeover’s Elite Youth Basketball League team this past summer, and also had offers from North Carolina State and Providence, among other schools.
» Georgetown Prep wing Mezie Offurum was offered by George Washington on Sunday, Mid-Atlantic Select Director James Lee told The Post. Offurum is a 6-foot-5 senior and was most recently offered by Bucknell, Hofstra and Rhode Island. The versatile prospect is looking to improve his recruiting situation after receiving interest from power-five programs as a sophomore. He spent time with Mid-Atlantic Select and the D.C. Blue Devils during this past AAU circuit.
» Springbrook’s Matt Balanc visited Georgetown this past Wednesday, Lee told The Post. Balanc, a 6-foot-3 guard who played for Mid-Atlantic Select this past spring and summer upped his recruiting stock as much as any local prospect this summer, adding nine offers across the three July evaluation periods and picking up offers from Jacksonville State and Florida Gulf Coast this month.
More high school sports coverage