When people say “anybody can win it” to describe district races, usually that’s just being overly optimistic for a few teams. However, we legitimately feel come district tournament time anyone in the Liberty District could come out on top. And while the Liberty lost a lot of talent to graduation the district retains some top-notch backcourt talent that could make a number of teams very dangerous by regionals. Exciting guards across the district and more parity than in recent years should make the Liberty boys fun to watch this season.
Okay, while anybody could win the district we’re not quite ready to say the South Lakes Seahawks aren’t the favorite. Their amazing frontcourt of last year has all but completely graduated, plus guards Damon Johnson and Tiquan Saunders. But Coach Andrew Duggan isn’t worried because his JV went 14-2 last year and his returnees include small but extremely talented guards Brian Adams, Joseph Dagbe and Cameron Savage. Those guys alone form a nucleus for a good season.
Savage is easily one of the best guards in the region and has looked sensational in Fall League. A natural leader, Savage uses his quickness to constantly apply pressure on the ball and takes pride in getting stops as much as scoring. Brilliant at attacking the rim with excellent leaping ability, Savage needs only to continue to improve his shot to become somewhat unstoppable. He has always scored well (around 15 a game last season) despite running the point but this year he should throw up around 20 a game.
If he needs to. He has help in Dagbe and Adams, two rotation guards back from last year. Dagbe, a junior, has infinite swagger and won a few games for the Seahawks last year despite being on a senior-laden team. Adams is also capable of big games and the backcourt rotation of those three mean South Lakes has the ability to match backcourts with almost anyone. “Those three have played together for a while now and they are very tight with each other,” Duggan says. “I think our backcourt is very ready to take a predominant role for us, at least more so than in recent years.”
The common question for teams in the district is what they’ll get out of their frontcourt. South Lakes is no exception, but the Seahawks probably still have more size than anyone in the district. Robbie Owens was a backup post player on the varsity last year. He didn’t play much with guys like Aghayere, Powers and Rowe on the roster, but he gained valuable experience playing those guys in practice. Jerome Scott will make an impact after playing on the JV last year and Clark Castleberry helped the Seahawks freshman team go undefeated last season. There is a lot of reason to believe those guys can control the boards within the district, as all are at least 6’5″ and can hold their own inside. All three also flash the ability to score consistently and get to the line.
One team on Duggan’s radar that played the Seahawks extremely tough last year were the Washington-Lee Generals. Gone is the Wizard of Ozgo (Chris Ozgo) and 6’7″ Colin MacCullough, but back is a very nice core of young talent. That starts with junior Anthony Reyes, who spent part of the offseason representing El Salvador on that country’s 16-and-under squad. Reyes can handle the ball and is a fantastic shooter. A first team all-NOVA sophomore selection last year, Reyes seems poised for big things this season.
“He’s a quiet kid, but he’s becoming a more vocal leader,” Generals coach Bobby Dobson told us. “The main thing now is he just has to be more consistent and play every game like it’s his last.”
Reyes has ample help in the backcourt, so he can score or distribute depending on what his team needs most. A lot of coaches around the region are well aware of six-foot sophomore guard Ilias Hwang, who got a lot of playing time last year as a freshman. Dobson loves the defense strong senior Alex Simmons provides and junior shooting guard Max Geiseman stepped in with some big games off the bench last year. As if that wasn’t enough senior guard Tyronne Helton returns and shooter Marino Dias arrives from O’Connell.
Only 6’4″ senior Patrick McGee returns from the frontcourt so there are concerns down low. Dobson, in his 26th year at the helm, says defense both inside and out will be key and likes his team’s chances to win the district.
“We got a lot of experience in some close games late last year,” he says. “I think that’ll benefit us this year. The kids are cohesive and really like each other.”
The fashionable and perhaps sentimental favorite to win the district are the McLean Highlanders. McLean won exactly zero games two years ago before winning nine last year, but the Highlander returnees have a lot of varsity experience and are much bigger and stronger now.
“We’ve taken our lumps, but we’re ready to take advantage this year,” McLean coach Mike O’Brien says. “As long as we can develop the mentality that we’re the team to beat night in and night out, we’ll be in good shape.”
Point guard Matias Prock returns. He’s got good size for a guard and can shoot and score as his team needs him to. Consider him one of the better players in the region. Swingman Evan Stout and guard Tucker Leggett are also now seniors, and like Prock both have been playing key minutes at McLean for what seems like forever. O’Brien expects Stout to be especially key in replacing some of the scoring rugged forward Sean Senft delivered for the Highlanders last year. Senft was an underrated force in the region last year, leading the team in scoring at around 15 a game.
Forward Brian Aka will be key to replacing Senft as well. Also now a senior, Aka will have to control the boards for the Highlanders on both ends of the floor. He’ll also have to play good defense for McLean to realize its goals. The athletic Aka is capable of doing exactly that.
There’s more. We count six more kids from last year’s varsity back plus Gonzaga transfer Randy Shephard, who played on the D.C. powerhouse’s JV last year. Will it be enough to propel the dark horse to a Liberty crown? The talent is there, but beating team like South Lakes isn’t an easy mental hurdle to overcome.
The Yorktown Patriots are kind of in the same boat as McLean, as the Arlington school hasn’t tasted much success the last two years. But the Patriots were one of the youngest teams in the region last year and only lost three players. So, if people consider McLean a contender this year, why not Yorktown?
“It depends how fast we grow up,” Patriots coach Joe Reed says. “How guys come out and make adjustments the second half of the season, how much leadership we get, that’ll determine how far we go.”
In a district of very talented guards, Reed puts senior Ryan Van Kirk up with all of them. Van Kirk is a ball-control guy with a lot of experience who is very capable of scoring and controlling the ball for Yorktown. Sophomore guard Liam Andersen did a good job as the team’s sixth man last year despite being just a freshman. Presumably he’ll slide right into a starting role next to Van Kirk. Lots and lots of other guards return including defensive-oriented Zack McCoskrie and shooter Aidan Stroup. There are a good many others that can hit the three, which will make the Patriots tough to beat on nights Van Kirk can control the ball and drive and dish.
The question marks are not unlike those of other teams in the district. Reed will have to rely heavily on a pair of not especially tall but physically strong kids to provide rebounding and defense down low. Sophomore Steven Lincoln, who played mostly on the JV last year, almost has to be significant contributor. So does Neil Carroll, a 6’3″ senior who saw a decent amount of court time last year. Defense will be critical both on the perimeter and inside, but Reed is betting more experience can help is team avoid the some of the lapses on that end of the court the Patriots suffered last year.
It is never a good idea to sleep on the Langley Saxons, but this year it might not be a good idea for a different reason–they’re sneaky athletic.
“In the six years I’ve been here I don’t think we’ve been this athletic,” Saxons coach Scott Newman told us. “Our program has fallen under the radar a little bit recently, but I like the spirit and continuity going on in our program. I think we could surprise people this year.”
It will take time since only four players return from last year’s varsity, but we completely agree with his premise and like what we’ve seen from the Saxons in the offseason. First of all, the returnees are very solid with tough, athletic junior guard Tre Vasiliadis leading the way. He won’t back down from any of the talented guards in the Liberty. Swingman Sohrob Kermanchi also looks a lot stronger, and he’ll need to be to help rebound for the smallish Saxons.
Plus there are some very notable newcomers. You rarely see transfers between Langley and McLean, but junior Thomas Balistrere comes over from the Saxons’ rivals. While Highlander fans might have a little fun calling him “Benedict Balistrere,” the big guard is an excellent shooter and figures to have an impact. He’s one of two transfers Newman is excited about.
A couple of sophomores who played on the JV last year are ones to watch as well. Newman says guard Jiann Sehhat is “wired to score” and Cole Withers is relentless on the boards despite not even having prototypical varsity small forward size. He’s an ace in the 200 meters in the offseason and a big reason Newman thinks his team’s athleticism will surprise people this season. The Saxons are a team carefully worth watching the second half of the season.
The Herndon Hornets finished last in the district regular season race last year but that hasn’t been indictative of how tough to beat they’ve been, especially at the end of the season. Last year they made the regional tournament and played Madison tough the whole way before falling by single digits. They were without one of their top players in that game as well, Trey Lewis.
The Hornets return only five players but you could argue the players they do get back give them one of the deepest and most talented backcourts in the district. Senior Jaden Snead is a three-year varsity player and a very solid point guard. Lewis is a senior shooting guard who can get hot in a hurry, such as when he scored 20 points against Yorktown in the regular season finale. Juniors Lysander Rehnstrom and Quentin Hart improved rapidly last year. Rehnstrom averaged 1-2 threes a game and Hart earned more playing time with solid play on both ends of the court. Those four guys give Coach Josh Headen a good chance to beat anyone on a given night.
“It’s a different type of basketball these days, an almost positionless kind of basketball,” Headen told us. “You get a talented big guy and you change things, but since it’s a more-guard oriented game now I love having those four guys [Snead, Lewis, Rehnstrom, Hart] back. They are keys to us playing good defense and pressuring the ball.”
Back also is senior forward Ben Medvene, and he’ll have to contribute this season for Herndon to realize its goals. Rebounding is a big concern for the Hornets and Medvene has to help in that department. Everybody really does, as Headen is very aware of the small margin between first place and last in the competitive Liberty.
“We need to focus on the details to be successful,” Headen said. “Everybody has to box out, we have to keep our composure and we all have to do the small things well. The key in this district is being able to be ‘who you are’ and play the type of game your team is best at.”