They endure the daily commute for the basketball.
Junior forward Amira Collins lives in Waldorf and drives an hour to school each morning.
Kaylah Henderson, a point guard off the bench, lives in Fredericksburg and commutes 45 miles to school every day.
New Jersey native Honesty Scott-Grayson, a junior point guard and the No. 11 recruit in the Class of 2018, transferred from Blair Academy (N.J.) to join the team this school year.
And last summer, Notre Dame signee Mikayla Vaughn left her home in Wynnewood, Pa., and moved in with a family friend in Northern Virginia to round out the roster.
The girls attend Paul VI, the Catholic high school in Fairfax that has assembled a collection of talent unrivaled in the area in recent seasons on the strength of a No. 1 USA Today national ranking and three consecutive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships.
The Panthers are girls’ high school basketball’s latest “super team,” a term more often used to describe the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
In boys’ basketball, programs like this — the kind that stock up with talent, win and restock without flinching — have existed and thrived for decades.
John Calipari is doing it at Kentucky. John Wooden assembled them at UCLA. Morgan Wootten did the same at DeMatha. They amassed historically dominant teams that won a staggering percentage of games. Paul VI has entered those ranks, say coaches and analysts around the country, and has done it in record time.
“Paul VI is clearly one of the premier teams in the country right now,” said Clay Kallam, national girls’ basketball editor for MaxPreps, CBS’s high school sports website.
The Panthers’ rise has been aided by decades of slow but seismic changes to the women’s game that helped spawn the WNBA, college dynasties and high school empires such as Christ the King (N.Y.), Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro, and now, Paul VI. They have national reputations that attract top-tier players with the promise of potential college scholarships.
“I knew I would be getting a lot better playing with girls that are as good if not better than I am,” Vaughn said. “I knew there would just be that kind of elevation of my game.”
The Panthers (22-1) finished the 2015-16 season on a 19-game winning streak. They are 87-4 over the past three seasons and went 383 days between losses, a streak snapped in January by rival St. John’s. They host the now top-ranked Cadets on Sunday with a chance for redemption.
Paul VI was the top team in The Washington Post rankings for 18 out of 27 weeks the past two seasons and finished No. 1 both years.
And then the Panthers added Vaughn and Scott-Grayson to an already loaded returning roster.
Scott Allen has led Paul VI’s team since 2002, when he interviewed for the head coaching job in a dingy gymnasium now relegated for practice use only. A rotting tuna sandwich sat on a table across the floor as he told school administrators he wanted to turn the program into a national brand that won championships and sent players to top college basketball teams.
Now college coaches send posters congratulating Allen on championships and top rankings.
North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell left him a handwritten note after a recent recruiting trip: “We need some of your players.”
Those players now come from all over the country to play at Paul VI. Vaughn left her family back home in Philadelphia when she transferred from Friends Central. Scott-Grayson played at perennial local power Riverdale Baptist before spending her junior year at Blair Academy. Collins spent one year at WCAC rival St. John’s, another nationally ranked emerging private school power.
But the Panthers’ abundance of riches also includes homegrown talent. Several players live in the local school district and would otherwise attend public school stalwart Oakton, five miles away. Sophomore point guard Ashley Owusu, ESPN’s No. 2 player in the Class of 2019 and a local talent, grew up attending Allen’s basketball camps and sitting behind the team’s bench during games.
Paul VI’s draw has reshaped the Northern Virginia basketball landscape.
“I’m recruiting the kids who are supposed to go to school here,” longtime Oakton Coach Fred Priester said.
Both Scott-Grayson and Owusu are uncommitted as to where they’ll play college basketball. When college coaches visit Fairfax — and Allen estimates around 90 make the trip each season — to evaluate those players, they also get a look at the rest of Allen’s roster.
It makes parents more likely to target Paul VI as a school and basketball team for their daughter because they see a possible return on investment in the form of a college scholarship, say Allen and Sue Phillips, the girls’ basketball coach at nationally renown Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, and one of the early architects of the “super team” era.
“Parents are investing both in the high school education and the club teams with the projection of a college scholarship, and that’s a quarter of a million dollars now,” Phillips says.
This hypercompetitive, high stakes recruiting process that fosters so-called “super teams” arrived thanks, oddly enough, to college football, says Kallam.
College football teams are allowed 85 scholarships each season and there is no comparable women’s sport. So women’s college basketball teams award 15 scholarships every year, rather than 13 for men’s teams, as mandated by Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act. The provision stipulates women and men’s sports receive equal scholarship opportunities.
The women’s game also developed more slowly than the men’s, which has held a national tournament of at least eight teams since 1939. The women’s game didn’t hold a tournament until 1972. National powerhouse Connecticut, winner of the past four NCAA women’s national titles, didn’t have a women’s basketball team until 1974.
The result, Kallam says, is too many scholarships for too few players, so college coaches offer scholarships to players from the same high schools to woo a more cherished recruit.
Schools like Christ the King, Oregon City (Ore.), Archbishop Mitty, Riverdale Baptist — and now Paul VI — developed reputations for sending their players to high-profile colleges that help attract better players.
“It built itself to that point,” Allen said, “where people look at what we have from the outside and say, ‘That could be good for my kid, too.’”
Attracting elite athletes and their families at times creates a highly pressurized environment. Transfers are accustomed to dominating the ball at their former schools or getting a certain number of shots or points per game. Playing time is suddenly at a premium when a dozen standout players jockey for floor time. And all the while, they know college recruiters are watching.
At Paul VI, there simply isn’t enough playing time to rival that of an individual star player at a school with less depth. That lack of individual exposure can be jarring for girls — and their parents — used to having the ball in their hands the entire game.
Allen said adjusting to a new system and teammates might be the hardest thing some of his transfers have ever done on a basketball court.
Multiple players have left the Panthers’ program, including several this school year. One player quit the team in January with the hope of finding more playing time elsewhere. The arrival of Vaughn and Scott-Grayson also bumped returning players expecting a larger role this season.
“Patience is a virtue a lot of people don’t have now,” Allen said. “And biding your time, that’s a hard thing to do, because there may be another [player] coming in behind you. You just don’t know.”
Losing a game in that environment is equally shocking. Three players — who account for a combined 31.5 points per game — had never experienced defeat in a Panthers’ uniform until that Jan. 24 loss to St. John’s. Paul VI’s winning reputation is what hooked Scott-Grayson.
“It’s my passion to play basketball, so whatever move I had to make . . . it was worth it,” she said.
Word gets around to the country’s top players on which school is building the next dynasty and where other great players want to go. For super teams, those girls tend to arrive all at once.
“It’s not the kind of thing where if you can’t beat them, join them,” Scott-Grayson said. “But I could see myself fitting in well here.”