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Local basketball powers Paul VI, Sidwell Friends take national stage

Local basketball powers Paul VI, Sidwell Friends take national stage

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

For much of the past month, the best boys’ high school basketball team in the D.C. area has been practicing against itself inside its own gym. After winning the Virginia private schools title in early March, Paul VI took a few days off before getting back to work. As the weather has warmed and spring sports have begun, the Panthers have held a series of practices inside the athletic center on their Loudoun County campus, ramping up for the finale of their season.

Paul VI hopes the payoff comes this week in Indianapolis at the Chipotle Nationals, a three-day, eight-team even that is the closest thing high school basketball has to a national championship. The Panthers, coming off a 33-2 campaign that saw them win the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference in dominant fashion, are the No. 2 seed in a stacked field that features dozens of high-major commits and future NBA draft prospects. The Panthers open play Thursday against Florida’s IMG Academy.

“We’re always honored to be invited to something like this,” Panthers Coach Glenn Farello said. “The winner gets to say they’re the best team in the country. And not with a résumé — you get to earn it.”

The girls’ tournament will also have a local representative with Sidwell Friends (25-6) earning the No. 5 seed in the six-team field. The Quakers, who won a similar national championship event each of the past two seasons, will face Montverde Academy (Fla.) in Thursday’s quarterfinal.

This event was founded in 2009 (with different commercial sponsors since its inception).

Paul VI was invited last year but made an early exit after falling to eventual champion Link Academy (Mo.) in the opening round. Whereas last year’s invitation felt like a surprise reward for a strong season, the Panthers entered this winter with every intention of making a return trip.

“We’re going down there to win it, not just to play,” said senior guard Darren Harris, a Duke signee and this winter’s All-Met Player of the Year. “We have an older group this year and we want to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Harris didn’t mind the long layoff between the postseason and this event, if only because it gave the team more time together. The group features five elite seniors: Harris, guard Ben Hammond, forward Isaiah Abraham, forward Garrett Sundra and forward Patrick Ngongba.

Ngongba, another Duke signee, missed the entirety of the regular season and playoffs after injuring his foot in November. But after another month of rehab and practice, he is expected to play Thursday against IMG. It will be the first time all five seniors have suited up together this year.

“When we lost him for the season, it created an additional goal,” Farello said. “All the kids knew that, with an extra month of healing, he might be able to play with his teammates for one last event.”

That has been another motivating factor over the past few weeks of practice: this event, no matter how it goes, will be the final one this group plays together. Throughout the postseason, as the Panthers accomplished one goal after another, they always had something else to point toward.

“This is our last dance,” Hammond said. “We want to go out with a bang. We did that in the WCAC and we want to do it again.”

Thursday’s opponent, IMG Academy, represents the type of school that has come to dominate events like this in recent years. Based in Bradenton, Fla., IMG’s national roster includes former local stars Donovan Freeman and Khani Rooths. The event’s top seed, Montverde Academy (in suburban Orlando), is headlined by forward Cooper Flagg, a junior phenom originally from Maine.

Paul VI stands out as a different type of basketball power, built on the strength of local players and committed to providing a more traditional high school education.

“So many of these teams are national teams,” Farello said. “So for us to be there with a bunch of homegrown DMV kids, representing a traditional four-year Catholic high school — it’s something we’re proud of. We completely respect the academy style schools, but we’re proud to be playing at the same level.”

The Quakers, meanwhile, will be looking to end their season on a high note after a heartbreaking loss in the D.C. State final last month. Fresh off another Independent School league title, Sidwell had its postseason momentum halted by St. John’s in a dramatic championship game. That 42-39 overtime defeat was the program’s first loss against a local opponent since February 2023.

Sidwell will be led by two seniors wrapping up a busy week: Forwards Kendall Dudley and Zania Socka-Nguemen played in the McDonald’s All-American game Tuesday night in Houston. Now, in their final competition with the Quakers, they will chase a third national postseason crown.

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