OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Roland Park Country School girls’ basketball team trails by four points with 21 seconds remaining, and McDonogh School Coach Brad Rees is growing nervous that his biggest rival’s season will end in heartbreak.
“I can’t imagine a worse situation,” Rees says with a groan as he palms his face.
Rees appears as animated as he does when coaching his Eagles, praying for Roland Park Country baskets and barely blinking when wing Maria Ferariu is on the court. As Ferariu commits her fourth foul in the fourth quarter, he screams at the ref along with 300 Reds fans.
When the final buzzer sounds on Roland Park Country’s 33-29 loss to St. Frances Academy, Rees lets out an anxious sigh.
“She’s not going to be happy,” Rees says.
As spectators head toward the exits and the Owings Mills Gymnasium’s lights go out, Rees waits for Ferariu and her teammates to emerge from the locker room with teary eyes. While Rees’s team didn’t lose this night, Roland Park Country’s defeat in the conference championship game hurts just as much.
Rees has been hosting Ferariu, a native of Brasov, Romania, since September 2017. When McDonogh didn’t have room for Ferariu to join its team, Rees and his wife, Cathy, decided to host her anyway, with Rees becoming her guardian so the 6-foot-1 senior could receive more recruiting exposure by playing against tougher competition in the United States.
While some private schools provide boarding for out-of-area student athletes, others rely on families to house players and provide a family environment during their time at the school.
“Thanks to them, I don’t miss home that much,” said Ferariu, 18. “They’re like my family now.”
An essential role
Scott Buckley, then the Roland Park Country girls’ basketball coach, couldn’t believe the text he received in July 2017. Rees was asking Buckley whether he’d be interested in adding Ferariu to his team.
“First I said: ‘Are you trying to punk me? Because this doesn’t sound right to me,’ ” recalled Buckley, now Roland Park Country’s associate athletic director. “Offering someone of this caliber to one of your rivals is pretty special.”
The arrangement came about after Ferariu’s sister Ana, who plays for Drexel, told her coaches that Maria was interested in finishing high school in the United States. When a Drexel assistant contacted Rees, he learned McDonogh’s 2019 graduating class was full, so he texted Buckley.
Roland Park Country has never used host families for athletes, Buckley said, so Rees agreed to host Ferariu in the short term while Roland Park Country searched for a host. Rees and his wife, whose three daughters had departed their Canton home, soon bonded with Ferariu.
“We started to fall in love with her, and now I’m upset we have to go through the empty nest thing again,” Cathy Rees said. “It wasn’t something I asked for, but sometimes the best things in life are surprises.”
As private schools have sought new ways to compete nationally over the past decade, there has been an uptick in the use of host families, Rivals.com analyst Corey Evans said.
Usually, athletes relocate to increase their college attention by contributing to a stronger high school team. Some of those schools offer boarding, but many don’t, and in cases when players don’t have a relative in the area — which is the norm for international players, in particular — host families fill the void.
Dominik Guess, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, said developing relationships is one of the most difficult but essential factors in an international teenager’s transition to the United States, and host families can help. It can often take a year or more for players to adapt to American culture, coaches said, in addition to the up-tempo, physical style of basketball, and a host family is expected to treat the teenager as part of the family during that critical stretch.
“Every year, you’re constantly recruiting host families,” said Middleburg Academy boys’ basketball coach Joe Philogene, whose team features 10 international players. “We do FaceTime interviews with the host families, and the school also does a background check . . . so both sides are happy.”
In most cases, a family of a player on the team will host an out-of-state player. The New Hope Academy girls’ basketball team, which has become one of the nation’s best teams in its second year, leans on a trio of in-team families to host out-of-area players.
One of Middleburg’s hosts, Jake Fisher, accommodates three international players in his Waterford, Va., home because the 72-year-old said he enjoys the company and being able to help the players.
“Once you’ve done this, you can’t stop,” Fisher said.
Living with a foe
Rees didn’t think anything could upset him after McDonogh’s win over Roland Park Country in January 2018 — the first time Rees and Ferariu faced on the court. But after the game, Ferariu burst into tears in the passenger seat of Rees’s gray RAV4.
“I’m like: ‘I have no idea how to address this one. Can you wait to get home and talk to my wife?’ ” Rees said. “ ‘This is going to be a long 20-minute car ride home.’ ”
Their partnership has created other awkward moments. At first, when Rees attended Roland Park Country’s games and practices, Reds players asked Ferariu whether Rees was scouting them. There was similar paranoia about Rees gathering intel from Roland Park Country’s parent meetings, so Cathy would go instead. Rees, 59, instead got involved with Roland Park Country in other ways, volunteering at dances and attending parent-teacher conferences.
McDonogh played the same night as Roland Park Country’s senior day, so Rees’s mother, who at times has rooted for Ferariu against her son, walked Ferariu to the court pregame.
“I was going to wear all my McDonogh gear, too,” Rees joked.
Over dinner every evening, Rees, his wife and Ferariu discuss everything from the senior’s government and politics class to international NBA players. They just don’t bring up high school basketball.
When Roland Park Country Coach Danielle Steinbach asks Ferariu the result of McDonogh’s game the previous night, Ferariu rarely knows.
“We kind of respect those boundaries,” Rees said. “We joke about it a lot.”
Roland Park Country and McDonogh have separated themselves as top Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference contenders over the past decade. Roland Park Country topped the Eagles in both of the teams’ meetings this season as Ferariu combined for 28 points.
“The first game, it was a little bit weird,” said Ferariu, who averaged 10 points this season. “Now, it’s just like any other game.”
In May, Ferariu plans to return to Romania before moving to Philadelphia, where she will play for Drexel. While eating lunch with Rees at Claddagh Pub in early February, Ferariu said she would like to come back to visit Roland Park Country next year.
“Where are you going to stay?” Rees replied, and the two burst out laughing.
Rees said that, looking back, he is glad Ferariu didn’t attend McDonogh, because the school offers boarding — meaning he would have gotten to know Ferariu as a player, but not as a part of his family.
“I never knew it was going to be so good,” Ferariu said.
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