The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sidwell Friends, with an ideal starting five, evolves into the nation’s top girls’ basketball team

Kiki Rice, a star guard heading to UCLA next year, is the lone senior on an immensely talented Quakers squad. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

When it was time for the game to begin, the five Sidwell Friends starters broke away from the big huddle and formed a smaller one.

They put their arms around one another and bowed their heads close together. The five — Kiki Rice, Jadyn Donovan, Khia Miller, Leah Harmon and Kendall Dudley — do this before every game, a brief meeting to feel connected before tip-off.

In this particular assembly, the message was short and to the point. This was the regular season finale, a road game against conference foe Maret. It was the Frogs’ senior night, meaning they had a vocal student section ready to celebrate the home team and deem the Quakers “o-ver-ra-ted!” Wouldn’t it be nice, it was said in the Sidwell huddle, to spoil the fun?

There were much larger goals to achieve on this Tuesday night, but those were left unsaid. Most notably, the Quakers were looking to complete the girls’ basketball program’s first undefeated regular season in recent years. Ranked No. 1 by The Washington Post since the start of the campaign, the Quakers have put together an especially rigorous nonconference schedule and then used it to propel themselves to rare heights. Since December, they have been ranked as the top team in the country by ESPN and recruiting website MaxPreps, unofficial honorifics but a bragging right nonetheless.

The Maret game would be followed by a chance to memorialize this dominance with trophies in the conference, state and maybe even national postseason tournaments. But even without the hardware, this Sidwell team will be remembered in the D.C. area for years to come.

“People ask me: ‘How did this happen? How did you put this together at a school like Sidwell?’ ” Rice said. “That’s something we hear a lot.”

When they play on the road, their ranking follows them. An energy fills the gym, beginning during layup lines and growing stronger by game time. It is fueled by the uncertainty of the outcome in those early moments — and the chance, however remote, that this will be the night when the No. 1 team goes down.

That feeling was present at Maret as the starters broke their huddle and got in position on the court. The Sidwell five stretched their legs or wiped their hands on the bottom of their sneakers. They looked confident in their ability to control the situation, to exterminate the buzz.

This is not the night the No. 1 team goes down.

Welcome to Sidwell

Rice is a do-it-all, two-sport, UCLA-bound guard. She is the only senior in Sidwell’s starting five, and she has been at the school the longest, having arrived in fourth grade. She is the niece of Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, and she has been a notable name on the local basketball scene since before her freshman season.

It was then, in late middle school, as she approached a standout high school career in soccer and basketball, when she almost stopped Sidwell’s ascent before it could begin.

Sidwell Friends is known for many things, but athletics isn’t high on the list. Identified by some in the area simply as “the Obama school” because it was attended by both daughters of the former president (Chelsea Clinton is also a graduate), Sidwell is widely recognized for its history, its prestige and its academics. When it comes to sports, the Northwest Washington school is often a secondary option behind larger private schools, such as those in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.

For a girls’ basketball team that had not won an Independent School League tournament title in well over a decade, Rice provided hope from the time she was making plays in middle school gym class. But, ultimately, she had to survey her options.

“I wanted to make sure I was at a place where I could compete at the highest level, so I did look around before that freshman season,” Rice said. “But I love Sidwell. Besides athletics, there was no reason to leave. I figured things could work out.”

The Quakers improved in Rice’s freshman season, but longtime coach Anne Renninger retired at the end of the campaign. As part of the hiring process, a handful of potential replacements met with Rice and a few teammates to discuss their plans. The candidate Rice liked best was Tamika Dudley, who had just won a Virginia state championship and All-Met Coach of the Year honors at Woodbridge High in Prince William County.

Dudley got the job, and in her first year she brought with her two talented freshmen: Donovan and Miller.

Donovan, an athletic guard focused on academics, picked Sidwell over Pennsylvania’s prestigious Westtown School.

Miller, a feisty, defensive-minded forward, was the type of person to envision exactly what she wanted out of a high school career: go to her local public school, Woodbridge, and win a state championship or two playing for Coach Dudley. So when the coach changed plans, so did Miller.

“She wants the best for you, no matter what level that is,” Miller said. “If that’s going to college or just having a good high school experience, she works for that. She teaches us life lessons and how to be a woman in the world.”

That winter, the young Quakers looked ahead of schedule as they finished first in the ISL regular season standings. Although they fell short in the conference and state tournaments, the program seemed poised to break through the following year.

The Quakers made two more key additions that offseason, one from near and one from far. Harmon, a smooth-handling, sharpshooting guard, came from New Jersey after meeting Kendall Dudley and some other local players through AAU basketball.

The second addition was Kendall Dudley herself, who had transferred to Sidwell’s middle school when her mom took the coaching job and was finally able to join the varsity team. She knew the squad as well as anyone, having spent her eighth-grade year practicing with the Quakers. It was a frustrating gig, to put in all that work and then spend game day as the video operator, but it gave her a chance to observe the team and understand how special the group would become.

“I could see the bonds forming,” she said. “I could tell the following years would be fun.”

Better together

In the game at Maret, four sets of eyes focus on Donovan, who stands poised in the center circle, waiting to jump.

These five players have taken the floor together for all but a few games this year, having avoided major health issues.

But a starting lineup is a delicate thing. This one took years to assemble, and it will disappear in a matter of weeks when the season ends. A perfect five is always under threat — from injuries and personalities and all manner of unstable factors. Most of all, it is always up against time.

Dudley thought she would have two years with this group, but last season was canceled because of the pandemic. So a team that would eventually take over the country started to develop mostly behind closed doors. At long practices and a limited number of scrimmages, the players came into their own.

Rice worked on her leadership skills, knowing when normalcy returned she would be a senior. Donovan and Miller defined their roles, helping the team achieve balance. Harmon and Dudley adjusted to high school basketball, growing comfortable before the spotlight arrived.

By the start of this season, the Quakers knew who they were and what they could do. The accolades surrounding them were many: Rice, Donovan and Dudley were ranked as top-10 prospects in their classes, and Harmon and Miller also drew high-level interest.

“It’s surreal to be where we’re at as a team,” Donovan said. “We’ve put the time in, so I think it’s deserved, but to get to this point so fast is pretty surprising.”

Despite the personal achievements, they had found a way to function as a unit. The key was to avoid overthinking.

“People often ask us how we [share the ball] with so many good people on the team,” Harmon said. “I don’t really understand that. It’s even better having a whole five that can score. It’s not a stress — it’s relieving. If I don’t make a shot, somebody else will.”

As the Quakers mowed through their schedule, that balance showed up in the box score. Rice led the way in the team’s breakout game, an early-season victory over DeSoto (Tex.), then ranked as the top team in the country. In a late-January rematch, Donovan was the leading scorer. The season high belongs to Harmon, who had 51 points in a conference win over St. Andrew’s.

“Ultimately we all want to win,” Dudley said. “And if that means giving the extra pass or feeding the person with the hot hand, we’re all ready to do that.”

Back in Maret’s gym, the chemistry is on display right away. Donovan glides to the hoop and lays in the ball with her right hand for the opening basket. Miller makes a steal as the Frogs try to bring the ball up the floor. Dudley gets another layup. Another steal, another layup — this time from Rice. By the end of the first quarter, Sidwell leads 21-6. At halftime, it is 40-8.

This is not the night. The Quakers go on to win, 72-46, capping a 23-0 regular season.

The Sidwell five head to the locker room for a postgame chat and reemerge to a gym that has a different kind of energy. Friends and family have stuck around and are milling about, waiting to celebrate another victory with the best girls’ basketball team in the country.