Students attend private schools for all sorts of reasons. Great teachers? Sure. Academic challenges? Of course. So why not sports? In Fairfax, the basketball teams at Paul VI are tops in the D.C. area, and among the best in the country.
By Dan Friedell • Photography by Erick Gibson
Ariana Freeman may go down in the history of Paul VI girls’ basketball as the program’s best-ever player. But now as she tackles her freshman year at the University of Louisville, where she will be a member of one of the country’s top-ranked women’s programs, she’s able to objectively remember herself as a spoiled ninth-grader who Scott Allen would routinely kick out of practice.
“I was a big eye-roller as a freshman,” says Freeman. “He was a no-tolerance coach. … I was just a hothead, thinking that I knew everything. And Coach Allen didn’t care how good I was. He would sit me on the bench and just make me sit there and think about my actions. He wouldn’t play me until I got my head under control.”
With that anecdote as a runway, perhaps it’s poetic that as the Panthers were winning their first-ever Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament last spring at American University’s Bender Arena, Freeman was watching the last 30 seconds from the bench after fouling out, back where she began four years earlier.
“I probably had one of the worst games of my career. I’m so glad that my team was able to pull through. I really didn’t do anything in that championship game,” says Freeman of Paul VI’s 57-54 win over St. John’s that highlighted a 29-5 season. “I was sitting on the bench, and when that time went off the clock, I ran up to Coach Allen and the tears started falling. It was an overwhelming flow of enjoyment. You work so hard for four years and being able to leave with the one thing you haven’t gotten was something that was truly special.”
Schooled on the Art of the Win
How Kathy Jenkins took St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School’s lacrosse program to a ranking level.
Over the last 30 years, the girls lacrosse program at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria set the gold standard for sports at private and parochial high schools in Northern Virginia. Kathy Jenkins’ team is a seven-time Virginia Independent School Athletic Association state champion (the tournament began in 2006) and is often ranked as the top team in the D.C.-Metro area by the Washington Post. National surveys of high school lacrosse programs rank them among the nation’s best—the last time the Saints finished the year ranked out of the top 5 by authoritative website LaxPower.com was 2011.
But the funny thing is, if it weren’t for a homework assignment at an American University graduate-level education class, it’s possible the program never would have reached such lofty status.
Jenkins started teaching physical education in the elementary school at SSSAS in 1973, and she was still working on her education degree a couple years later when her professor assigned a project: start something new at your school. Jenkins, who had children at that point, was already involved in her kids’ T-ball and soccer teams as a coach, so starting a new sport where she would be a coach seemed like a natural progression. “I loved, loved basketball way back,” she says, but there was already a basketball team. So lacrosse it was.
“The [school] bought some sticks, and we made some goals with chicken wire and wood. That was in 1976. We got the good basketball players and some other athletes to try it, and they thought it looked like fun. By 1977, we had a game against Roland Park in Baltimore,” she says, talking about the private all-girls school that already had an established team and continues to produce great lacrosse players. Within a couple years, the Saints had a solid team, and in the early 1980s, players from Jenkins’ teams started getting recruited by colleges. “The school’s name started getting out there, and by 1990 when Harvard won the national championship, three or four Saints girls were on that team. Kids started wanting to play in college, and the younger girls would watch the girls they looked up to moving on and playing. It sort of exploded and has continued since then. It wasn’t planned that way when we started, but that’s what happened.”
There’s something to be said for being one of the first girls teams in Northern Virginia to ascend the lacrosse ladder—if you have a program in place and find some early success, it’s harder for challengers to knock you off the pedestal. But SSSAS has endured for over 30 years.
“When you’re in a winning program, it’s hard. You always have people on your back trying to beat you. They get tired of the same teams winning,” says Jenkins. “Our kids have an expectation and they want to win. They don’t want to be in the class that doesn’t win the league tournament or the state tournament.”
While the Saints did lose last spring’s state title game to neighborhood rival Bishop Ireton, it would be smart to look for St. Stephen’s-St. Agnes near the top of the standings again in 2015. Why? Because of Jenkins.
“She gets involved with the kids at a young age,” says Paige Patterson, a 2012 graduate who earned an athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina after a strong career as the Saints’ defensive midfielder. “I came in to the school in sixth grade, and I remember idolizing the high school players. And then if [Jenkins] ever came around to our club team games, I would make sure I was playing my best. You want to play your best for her.”
Jenkins, though, is in her 60s. How much longer will she coach?
“Until I feel like I should give it up,” she says. “If I start feeling like it’s not the right place for me I’ll move on. But I still love it. It keeps me going, and the girls are great. I have young coaches, they’re good to me. Until I stop enjoying it, and they stop needing me. I’ll probably stay a few more years.”
Of course, says Allen, Freeman is being self-deprecating, omitting the fact that she made a 3-point play that put the Panthers ahead for good just before fouling out. Those three points might have been the most important in a career filled with buzzer-beaters and 20-point games.
Paul VI’s girls had been one of the league’s top teams for years, and Virginia’s No. 1 independent school for a decade, but that WCAC title was elusive. With the win, and the boys’ victory over DeMatha a couple hours later, the Panthers snagged the elusive double: a school hadn’t won the league’s boys’ and girls’ title in the same season since St. John’s did it in 2000. “Winning the WCAC tournament was like winning the national championship for us,” says Allen.
And it might not have happened if he hadn’t been willing to put a talent like Freeman on the bench for a while at the beginning of her career. Most coaches, feeling pressure to win and pressure to appease the parents of star players, wouldn’t have been able to do that.
For Glenn Farello, PVI’s boys’ coach, winning a second title to match 2012’s championship was important, too. It proved their first title wasn’t a fluke. Not many coaches can say they’ve won state titles in both Maryland (2002 with Eleanor Roosevelt) and Virginia (the VISAA championship with Paul VI) to go along with a couple championships in what most agree is the premier league in the country.
“PVI killed DeMatha in the finals,” says Neil Berkman, the coach at Alexandria’s Bishop Ireton, who was the commentator on the game’s broadcast that night. “They were clicking. Paul VI just dismantled them from the inside out.” The 56-37 win ended on a 13-4 run that underscored the Panthers’ defensive effort that night.
The two coaches Allen, 39, and Farello, 44, are experienced enough to know how unique a season they watched.
“Me and Scott are great friends, it’s fantastic we have that kind of relationship,” says Farello. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Coaches or players? Private or public?
So, why does a student choose a private school over a public one? If a school has 800 students, there are probably 800 discrete reasons. But it boils down to one thing: the student and his or her family believe the school offers something they can’t find in a public school. Maybe it’s personal classroom attention, maybe it’s a nod to spirituality (there is, after all, a crucifix in the Paul VI gym), and for about 80 athletes, split evenly between the boys’ and girls’ teams (ninth grade, JV and Varsity), there’s basketball.
If you’re good enough to make the Varsity squad at Paul VI, you’re good enough to play in college. And if you’re a starter, it’s not unreasonable to think major schools like Syracuse or Louisville will come calling with scholarship offers. During one afternoon in September, coaches from James Madison and the U.S. Naval Academy visited the girls’ team’s open gym (an unstructured scrimmage), while a stream of coaches checked in during the boys’ gym time (Harvard, Holy Cross, VCU and Georgetown). No other school in Northern Virginia can offer the same exposure.
Just like students compete to get into Fairfax County’s nationally known STEM school, Thomas Jefferson, students compete for Allen and Farello’s attention during middle school summer league games. Each has connections with a top AAU program in the Metro-D.C. area: for Farello, it’s Team Takeover, while Paul VI’s girls JV coach, Jeff Benjamin, is deeply involved with the Potomac Valley Vogues. As soon as Farello or Allen gets word of a prospect who’s in seventh or eighth grade, they’re quick to pounce.
“[It’s part of our job] to go out and try to find players who are really good students, are really good kids and can play. If we find a player like that, we’ll go out and see if they’re interested in coming to PVI,” says Allen. And sometimes, if they’re really lucky, the best player in the history of the school will seek you out, as Freeman did.
“Her father approached me when she was going into eighth grade, saying he wanted to bring her to Paul VI,” remembers Allen. But once she got there, it was a bit of test. “She had never really been with older players who understood the philosophy of the program. She had never been in the situation where she had to share the ball with three or four other players. Never thought that time and possession and score mattered. [So] watching her mature as a basketball player and a person was amazing in four years.”
Each coach needed time to get his program up to the level where it was capable of competing with more established WCAC schools for talent. Ten years ago, Freeman might not have considered Paul VI, and the boys’ parents might not have seen that steady stream of scouts attending Farello’s workouts.
After 14 years at Eleanor Roosevelt, including seven as the school’s head coach, Farello took over the Panthers program in 2007. “They were not that good,” says Berkman. “I know that because I actually beat them one year.” Farello came to Fairfax with the goal of lifting the team to the top of the WCAC.
“They asked me what my vision was, and I said ‘My feeling is DeMatha and Gonzaga have been historically two of the best on the basketball side and my job is to get us to that level,’” Farello remembers of his interview at Paul VI. “That’s where the bar was. You have to set those expectations and strive for that.” It’s fitting then that for each of their championships, the Panthers beat DeMatha.
Farello says he was not looking for a WCAC coaching opportunity prior to the position at Paul VI opening up. But as a Reston resident, it was an obvious perk to be able to leave practice and drive home from Fairfax compared to Greenbelt, Maryland.
Players have the ability to put teams over the top, but ultimately, coaches are responsible for any high school sports team’s sustained success. Rosters turn over every four years (and more frequently than that in some cases, as kids transfer year-to-year in search of the best playing opportunity) but coaches set the tone for the school’s team. It’s one thing to have a star player like Freeman come in and help a team win over 100 games over four years, but it’s completely different for a school to remain among a league or state’s best for a decade or more. Allen has done that with the girls’ team, and Farello is heading in that direction.
“I have some great coaches here in several sports. Scott [Allen] and Glenn [Farello] are both outstanding and they work really hard at what they do. They take [it] seriously and they’re both professionals and the results are what they are,” says Billy Emerson, the athletic director at Paul VI. “Any team can be a one-year wonder. But the true measure of a good program, to me, is consistency. Are they doing it year in and year out? That’s happening here.”
So while many people say Freeman choosing Paul VI over Stonewall Jackson, the Manassas public school she was thinking of attending, put Allen’s team over the hump, the school has to already be part-way up that hump. “The last couple years we’ve been able to get on the other side, and we just have to keep that momentum going,” says Allen. And in most cases, before a transcendent star arrives, or even a core of stars like the boys’ team seems to have, the coaches have to build the program from also-ran to contender. Along with the heavy lifting that includes sitting star players, sacrificing summer vacations in favor of scouting, or analyzing hours of game tape, they also do the bus driving. The coaching duo has seen every winter-time traffic jam from Fairfax to the far corners of Maryland from the front seat of a school bus.
Basketball and family
This affinity for coaching basketball has left a void in their lives: neither is married or has children, though Allen is newly engaged. While that means they have extra time for basketball, it also means their relationship is still strong with their siblings and parents. Allen loves to attend NASCAR races in his free time, something he acquired from his father, who drove the haulers for NASCAR teams. And Farello still sees his father, Frank, every spring when his parents drive down from Ohio to watch the WCAC tournament. It’s a trip that comes with a caveat, however: “as soon as you lose, I’m going home.”
Sports ultimate list for Parochial/Private schools in Northern Virginia
Basketball is easy, but coming up with the rest of an “ultimate list”: pairing a sport with the private or parochial school in Northern Virginia that plays it the best, is no easy task. Paul VI’s hoops have been so consistently good in recent years, it’s easy to rank them No. 1, but what about sports like golf, wrestling and track and field?
The Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association provided a list of recent state champions, and its archives include tournament brackets for the last few years, so for most sports, this list was made through reviewing those documents, parsing rankings made available by The Washington Post’s Allmetsports.com and other rankings sites, plus considering anecdotal evidence from athletes, coaches and administrators in Northern Virginia. In some sports, the author reserved final judgment for choosing the top school. For example, while McLean’s Potomac School might struggle in a head-to-head football showdown with Arlington’s Bishop O’Connell, the Panthers are in a smaller athletic conference but have shown the strength and consistency among their peers to earn the top spot.
Football Potomac School
Boys Cross Country Bishop O’Connell
Girls Cross Country Bishop O’Connell
Field Hockey St. Stephen’s/Agnes
Volleyball Flint Hill
Boys Basketball Paul VI
Girls Basketball Paul VI
Boys Swimming/ Diving Bishop O’Connell Girls Swimming/ Diving Madeira
Wrestling Paul VI
Co-Ed Ice Hockey Bishop O’Connell
Boys Track Bishop O’Connell
Girls Track Bishop O’Connell
Boys Soccer St. Stephen’s/Agnes
Girls Soccer Bishop O’Connell
Baseball Paul VI
Softball Bishop O’Connell
Boys Tennis Potomac School
Girls Tennis Flint Hill Boys
Lacrosse St. Stephen’s/Agnes
Girls Lacrosse St. Stephen’s/Agnes
Much of what Farello learned about basketball, he picked up from his father, a long-time principal and assistant basketball coach in Ashtabula. Even when his son’s games were followed by a Friday night social event, Frank would be waiting up, ready to talk through the game when Farello walked in the door.
“Do you remember you did this or that coming down the court in the third quarter?” his father would ask. “He remembered every play. I couldn’t wait for that conversation at home,” says Farello. “It was never pointing fingers or criticizing a coach. He made me appreciate making winning plays, not just scoring points or getting the headlines. I want to share that with my players. College coaches want you to help them win.”
It’s no surprise then that Farello’s teams win about 80-percent of their games in the league’s tournament. “The more we win, the longer I get to see them,” he says. Turns out Frank approved of his son’s team’s stifling defense in the championship game.
In sync with their backgrounds, the son of a truck driver and the son of a high school coach don’t like to take too much credit for building these dominant programs. Ask them, and they’ll deflect much of the credit to their players. But the players will reflect it back towards them.
“I give all the credit to Coach Allen, because he really changed me, not only as a player, but as a person,” says Freeman.”There was no coach on the [college level] who would have wanted to deal with a player with an attitude.”
Farello doesn’t think he would be a different kind of coach were he plying his trade in Northeast Ohio, but he knows he would have a different caliber of player. For example, in that September scrimmage, players like junior forwards V.J. King and Corey Manigault would just grab the ball and dunk it as if it were nothing. Many high school teams from small towns in Ohio go decades without a player being able to dunk.
And that hunt for players, and keeping them happy, is no easy task. Not everyone would be willing to suffer bench time as Freeman was. And while both coaches easily turn on the happy-go-lucky persona that endears them to friends, college scouts and reporters, they’re hard-asses on the court. If a player thinks he or she ought to take 20 shots per game, Paul VI isn’t a place for them. While the teams have stars, neither coach runs a star system where a singular player has the ball all game long.
So while last season’s girls’ team had seniors Freeman and Lindsey Oblitey (attending Virginia Tech as a walk-on), and the boys had players like Joshua Reaves (bound for Penn State but now a senior at Oak Hill in Mouth of Wilson) and Marcus Derrickson (heading to Georgetown but now finishing his senior year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire) some obviously don’t finish school at Paul VI. And in the ultra-competitive high school sports environment that Paul VI travels in, it comes with the territory.
“We knew coming into the year we were really loaded,” Farello says of the 2013-14 season. “But we knew this year, we would have to have some changes. It was great they were together for that year, but they all have to find their own path. If that path matches up with ours, that’s great. If not, we want you to be happy.”
Setting the “find your path” philosophy aside for a moment, it’s likely Farello’s team will be more than OK this year. Franklin Howard, who was outstanding as a sophomore but missed his entire junior year with a knee injury, will be back in form, and the path of King, a player from LeBron James’ alma mater—Saint Vincent-Saint Mary’s in Akron, Ohio—just happened to intersect with Paul VI for his junior and senior years.
The girls’ team, packed with talented players for years, now knows how to win, according to Freeman. And it’s possible they are even better than last year, with key players Jonquanae Cole (committed to North Carolina State), Jasmine Whitney, Raven James and Kayla Meador all back for at least one more year.
The early spring of 2014 was a fairytale time for Paul VI’s basketball teams. But by the time the new season begins in December, that championship night in February will seem a long time ago. With the title comes changes for each team and coach. They’re getting more attention, invitations to play in far away tournaments. Perhaps a game or two on ESPNU. The school’s name will certainly turn up at the top of local and national preseason polls. Other teams will be trying extra hard to take down last season’s champ. But both coaches would clearly rather be in that situation, trying to back up the label of “defending champ,” than not having won at all.
Why? For one, it makes saying “come have a seat on the bench,” easier than it ever was before.