The Paul VI Catholic boys’ basketball team recruits players from around the area, has an unapologetically close relationship with one of the top Amateur Athletic Union programs, and went undefeated through the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference regular season and tournament.
Coolidge has built its team through homegrown players, a few fortuitous transfers and word of mouth.
The teams differ deeply in how they came together, yet their presence in Tuesday’s Abe Pollin City Title Game at Verizon Center — the annual matchup of the city’s top Catholic league team against the D.C. public school champ — is testament to success that’s undeniable and unexpected.
For Paul VI, playing in its first City Title Game, the journey to this point might be traced back three years ago to when Patrick Holloway was playing with his travel team in a spring tournament hosted by the Fairfax school.
The Panthers coaching staff approached him about transferring to their school. Then a freshman at Colonial Forge High who had split time between the junior varsity and varsity, Holloway said he had no idea where the Panthers stood in the WCAC pecking order.
“No disrespect, but I didn’t know anything about DeMatha or Gonzaga,” said Holloway, now a senior committed to play next season at George Mason. “I’m from Stafford County. I know nothing about anything. I was oblivious to it all.”
Maybe it was better that way. After all, when Holloway enrolled prior to the 2009-10 school year, the Paul VI trophy case included few contributions from its boys’ basketball team.
This year, though, things have changed. The top-ranked Panthers are 34-3 and enjoying one of the best seasons ever by a Catholic league team not named DeMatha or Gonzaga, beating those teams a combined six times and winning their first WCAC title.
The Panthers’ emergence was shouldered by Coach Glenn Farello, who took over the team in 2007 after enjoying success at Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George’s County. Farello said the challenge at Paul VI was two-fold: Recruit talented players and get them to believe that they don’t have to settle for always being behind the league’s established powers.
“You have to change people’s opinions and you can’t settle for being what you’re supposed to be,” Farello said. “The very first word to throw out there is you have to get people to believe. . . . You’ve got to find a way to overcome the mentality of ‘We’re Paul VI, they’re DeMatha.’ ”
Farello’s success at Roosevelt, which included a Maryland 4A championship in 2002 and two runner-up finishes, was a selling point as he and his coaches recruited players from talent-rich Prince George’s, including junior forward Stanford Robinson and freshman forward Marcus Derrickson, to commute to the school located on Route 50.
Robinson, who leads the Panthers with 13.5 points per game, has been suspended for the City Title Game after violating school rules, according to a person familiar with the situation. Attempts to reach Farello regarding Robinson’s status were not immediately successful Monday night.
Also important to Paul VI’s success has been a close relationship with the Team Takeover AAU team. Ten of this season’s 14 players have or will play for Takeover, including the starting lineup and all key reserves.
Farello and Takeover Coach Keith Stevens believe the arrangement has been mutually beneficial. Many of Paul VI’s players get the opportunity to play with each other year-round, which has them plenty familiar with their teammates when the high school season begins. Knowing the success that Takeover and its players have had recently — Stevens also has key players on teams at DeMatha, Episcopal and Gonzaga, among other schools — also helps sway potential incoming players, Farello said.
“From a recruiting standpoint, it’s a huge factor,” Farello said. “It gives us credibility and gives them credibility as well. There is definitely an advantage for us to have that relationship and for us to have our kids play at Paul VI and Takeover. We’re not shy about that.”
Coolidge, meantime, is making its first City Title appearance since 1988. The Colts (29-6) have an orange banner from that season hanging in their cavernous gymnasium, the lone reminder of the Northwest Washington school’s most recent major basketball accomplishment.
It was the first thing that Coach Vaughn Jones — an All-Met from DeMatha who played (and won) two City Title games at the Hyattsville school in 1991 and ’92 — pointed out to senior guard Khalen Cumberlander two years ago, when he transferred from Carroll. Instantly, Cumberlander said, he knew he had work to do to “make a name” for himself and his new school.
After winning the DCIAA West Division and falling in the semifinals for four straight seasons, the Colts finally broke through this winter with an unusual collection of talent, the continuity of its coaches and strong team unity. In addition to winning the DCIAA, the Colts posted wins over top private programs Montrose Christian and Riverdale Baptist, both ranked in the top five when they played Coolidge.
While Paul VI has seven players who have received Division I college basketball scholarship offers, Coolidge has three Division I-level players — a rarity in today’s DCIAA, a league whose talent pool has been thinned by the private schools and public charter schools.
But under Jones, Coolidge assembled and developed a talented core of players under Cumberlander (a Central Connecticut State signee), senior center Maurice Jeffers (a Delaware signee) and junior guard DeShaun Morman (whose play this season has made him a major Division I prospect). Junior forward Jade Dade also has Division I potential, Jones said.
In a league driven by individual coaches, Jones has used his connections to attract the current crop of players and work with them along with his assistants. In his fifth year at the school, Jones is one of the league’s longest-serving coaches. The team is a combination of homegrown players and transfers, which is allowed under D.C. Public Schools’ out-of-boundary policy that allows students to apply to change schools for any reason.
Relationships and referrals brought Cumberlander and Jeffers, who was at Wilson his first two years of high school, to Coolidge. Morman, who spent last season at Meadowbrook, a public school in Richmond, moved to the District to live with his father and chose Coolidge because of AAU teammate Cumberlander.
“Talent plays a big part in our style of play,” Cumberlander said. “A lot of teams this year, we didn’t play hard against a lot of teams and we beat them with talent. And most of the tough teams, we beat them with hard work and talent.”