As Paul VI prepared to face Montverde (Fla.) — at the time, the Goliath of the high school basketball world — in a national tournament in Missouri, Panthers Coach Glenn Farello laced the locker-room wall with past examples of upset lore, all scribbled in red magic marker.
“N.C. State beats Houston,” read one piece of paper. “Villanova beats Georgetown,” read another. The final page tugged on the strings of his players’ own hearts: “Paul VI ends Oak Hill’s 56-game win streak.”
“I asked our guys, ‘Why not us?’ ” Farello recalled of the moments leading up to the nationally televised game. “ ‘Why couldn’t we beat the number-one team?’ That’s the mentality you have to have when you play a national schedule, because it’s all about taking advantage of those opportunities.”
The Panthers knocked off Montverde at the buzzer on that January night in 2013, and their national basketball stock has soared since. With two Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships in the past three seasons and nine wins against nationally ranked teams last season, the Panthers are no longer chasing the Oak Hills and Montverdes — they’ve become one of them. The Fairfax private school, with an enrollment of about 1,000 co-ed students in grades 9 to 12, has become a destination for high-level national recruits and a powerhouse target for upstart opponents.
“I don’t think any of us really knew the magnitude of it all while it was happening,” said Paul VI senior Frank Howard, a Syracuse recruit. “As players, I think we just saw it as better press because we beat a couple ranked teams. Other people probably thought we just messed around and happened to have a good season. But looking back, all of that was huge in getting us to where we are.”
Seven members of Paul VI’s 2013-14 star-studded roster transferred during the offseason — including players committed to Georgetown, Minnesota and Penn State — and the Panthers have struggled at times during a 3-2 start this season. But the school’s burgeoning basketball reputation allowed it to reload quickly and remain in the mix as one of the country’s top teams. Along with the return of Howard, who missed last season with a knee injury, the No. 7 Panthers welcomed their own transfer in highly touted junior V.J. King, who starred last year at St. Vincent-St. Mary (Ohio), the alma mater of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.
“I could have maybe gone to a prep school, but the style of play here is a lot faster, and guys play so hard,” said King, who is No. 16 in ESPN’s 2016 class rankings. “I like the challenge of playing in the WCAC and how Coach Farello runs the program. It’s fast but disciplined. We even have to make sure our practice jerseys are tucked in.”
When he took over as Paul VI’s coach in 2007, following a 14-year stint at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Prince George’s County, Farello immediately set out to capitalize on the new advantage of being able to recruit players. Initially, Farello’s success at Roosevelt, where he won the 2002 Maryland 4A state title and earned a reputation for developing guards such as Delonte West, held little weight when stacked up against the storied success of WCAC counterparts like DeMatha and Gonzaga.
“Coaches like Red Jenkins and Levi Franklin laid the groundwork, so it’s not like we came in and had to rebuild from the ground up,” Farello said. “But we still ran into a lot of people who didn’t know where Paul VI was or that we were even in the WCAC. So we had to keep building off that groundwork toward more recognition.”
Farello peppered his staff with coaches who also served in the AAU organization Team Takeover, including Adrian Autry and Kenny Johnson, who are now assistants at Syracuse and Louisville, respectively. That connection has granted the Panthers a pipeline to players from one of the nation’s emerging basketball programs.
The AAU circuit often is criticized for diluting the foundation of high school basketball teams, a hindrance to the fundamentals and team-first approach preached by coaches. But Farello views it differently, noting the opportunity to develop his players year-round.
“I’m a huge believer in the marriage between AAU basketball and high school basketball because of the bridge it can be for our players and coaches,” said Farello, whose current staff has two assistants with Takeover ties. “[Team Takeover] is the best AAU program in the country, in my opinion, and to have that sort of working relationship has worked well for both ends.”
One example of such a player was Erick Green. After transferring from Millbrook (Va.) as a senior in 2008, the All-Met guard led Paul VI to its first Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association title. As Green went on to star at Virginia Tech and later become a second-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, others sought to follow in his footsteps.
For some, doing so meant acclimating to the structured, private-school life of dress codes and extended commutes. The transition proved tough for Patrick Holloway following his transfer from Colonial Forge as a sophomore, and it was magnified by the team’s up-and-down performance during a 17-15 campaign in 2009-10.
“There were many times I thought about leaving because it was uncomfortable for me at first,” said Holloway, now a junior guard at George Mason. “But my parents stayed on me and reminded me that the hard work would pay off, and we saw that as we got better each year.”
In 2012, Holloway, close friend Tilman Dunbar, Coleman Johnson, Stan Robinson and Jamall Robinson formed a unit that sparked the Panthers to a 21-0 mark in WCAC play and the school’s first boys’ basketball title.
“Kids today like what’s different, and that group was different and had more success every year by staying together until they reached the ultimate success with a championship,” Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner said. “That helped them bring in the next couple classes, and you started to see that they were here to stay.”
The next year, with a roster that included eight players who have since committed to play at Division I colleges, the Panthers outlasted top-ranked Oak Hill in double overtime, snapping the Warriors’ 56-game win streak.
“They had a good school with a good coach, but once they started getting the right players in place, that’s when you see teams enter the national conversation,” Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith said of Paul VI.
The process for obtaining talent has changed over the course of Smith’s 32 years at Oak Hill. As a boarding school in Mouth of Wilson, Va., Oak Hill offers an environment that mirrors elements of the college experience, leading the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant to enroll during the latter part of their high school careers. But as new basketball powers such as Findlay Prep (Nev.) and Huntington Prep (W. Va.) have arisen on the scene offering similar benefits, recruits have seen their options expand while coaches have watched their retention rates fall.
“It’s become sort of a business to where it’s almost odd now when you see one player stay at the same school all four years,” Smith said. “I’m not saying that’s good or bad. You just see more kids migrating to places where they can get the maximum exposure. It can be hard to keep kids.”
While Smith reluctantly has come to tolerate the perception that Oak Hill is a “basketball factory,” Paul VI principal Ginny Colwell cringes at the notion that her school would ever be seen as such. The Panthers’ girls’ team also has been nationally ranked in recent years and last year won its first conference tournament title.
“From what I know about that term, it’s a school built around the basketball team, and that’s not us. We’re an academic institution that happens to have a very good basketball team, along with other successful sports,” Colwell said. “It’s always nice to be recognized for the programs you put on, and Glenn has done a great job with the team, but as a school, we’re more than just one program.”
Transfers hit Paul VI’s roster hard this past offseason, with first-team All-Mets Marcus Derrickson (Brewster Academy in New Hampshire) and Joshua Reaves (Oak Hill) among the seven players who left for different schools — this just months after the Panthers swept the WCAC, Virginia Independent Schools and Alhambra Catholic Invitational titles.
During that run, the Panthers featured eight underclassmen holding multiple Division I offers. With Howard set to return this season and King entering the fold, the team again boasted one of the nation’s deepest rosters with limited playing time to go around.
When Tyler Scanlon enrolled at Paul VI as a freshman in 2012, the two-sport athlete traded his desire to play football at Westfield High for the hope of developing his 6-foot-6 frame into a college-ready basketball prospect. Since then, the versatile forward has garnered offers from Fairfield, Rice and Toledo. But when his teammates departed in the summer, Scanlon elected to return to Westfield.
“Those guys had really become my brothers, so when they left, it became easier for me to go back to Westfield,” said Scanlon, who averaged 6.8 points as a part-time starter for Paul VI last season. “Once one left, the dominos began to tumble. We had won together, and we ended up leaving together.”
Scanlon’s closest friend was Reaves, a Fairfax resident who led Paul VI in scoring before transferring to Oak Hill. Two months later, Derrickson, a Georgetown commit, also left, citing a desire to better prepare for college.
“It’s better for my career, honestly. Being part of a great team like [Oak Hill], with such history,” Reaves said. “And another reason is to get used to being at college.”
What once was a red flag at the high school level has become commonplace. According to DMVelite.com, 105 players transferred within or out of the D.C. metro area this past offseason.
Yet, as typical as transfers have become, a player exodus like the one Paul VI endured resonates in the wake of a banner season.
“I get the questions; we did have a perfect storm of some guys leaving for different reasons,” Farello said. “I don’t know if I get as caught up in it as some sort of epidemic because I think some people should just be happy. We respect players’ decisions if they want to go somewhere else. I think we do have a tendency to want to focus on someone leaving or say, ‘Hey, what’s going on there?’ But there are a lot of players that do stay.”
While the Panthers were able to replenish talent, with Howard and King joined by emerging sophomore guard Aaron Thompson and junior forward Corey Manigault — both of whom were on the Panthers roster last season — they’ve found that developing chemistry takes time.
Last week, Paul VI lost to WCAC foe St. John’s before falling to nationally ranked Oak Hill by 16 in a performance marred by turnovers and inconsistent play.
“It’s a process,” King said after the loss to Oak Hill. “We’re not a finished product. You just go back and keep working, keep going.”
Plenty of eyes will be watching as Paul VI cuts its teeth against some of the country’s toughest competition over the next month. This weekend, the Panthers will join a field of seven nationally ranked teams at the City of Palms Classic in Florida before playing televised games against Montverde and Chaminade (Mo.).
Paul VI also will take part in the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions, marking a return to the scene that helped catapult the Panthers into the national discussion two years ago in Missouri. And in Farello’s mind, not much has changed since.
“We know we’re going to get everyone’s best shot, but we still see ourselves as the underdog,” Farello said. “If you buy into the idea that you’re defending a championship, you’re not going to be hungry or aggressive.
“Every year is a new challenge.”
Mark Giannotto contributed to this report.