Edison #23 (2)
Anthony Saunders and Edison (and others) hope to give Hayfield a run in the National District this season.

National District Boys Preview: Is Hayfield mortal?

2022-2023 National Regular Season Champion: Hayfield
2022-2023 National District Tournament Champion: Hayfield
2023-2024 Novahoops.com Presumptive Favorite: Hayfield

What’s New In 2023-2024: New coaches arrive at Justice, Lewis, and Mount Vernon. A new talented starting five for Hayfield, the two-time defending state champs. Guard Jerome Betts moves to Edison from Woodbridge; guard Jeff Pewett from Lake Braddock to Annandale.

A legendary senior class for the Hayfield Hawks has finally departed, which makes every basketball program not located on Telegraph Road, really, really happy. Still, winning begets winning, and even without King, Jones, Holloway and company, the cupboard is hardly bare for the two-time state champions.

There’s a good amount of talent back, and once again a strong JV and overall program will fill in the gaps. There’s just not a lot of actual varsity court experience back, so it may take some time for the Hawks to put it all together.

“It’s going to be hard early,” says Hawks coach Carlos Poindexter of his team’s prognosis. “But come January, February, I think nobody is going to want to play us.”

His foundation is strong. 6’8″ Owen Pottenburgh will man the middle for the Hawks. Poindexter says Pottenburgh is a vocal leader who can run the court well. He will anchor the team’s defense and provide a lot of rebounding, integral to the Hawks’ ability to play pressure defense and get out in transition.

There are plenty of guys that certainly can thrive in transition. Senior Ryan Payne returns to action after tearing a MCL last season–he’ll man the one and push the tempo. Wing Andy Ramirez Novas probably has the most varsity experience of the returnees, and he very well might be a National District Player of the Year candidate. Alex and Aaron McFarlane are brothers that transferred in from Florida earlier this year–they are high IQ players that have the potential to be very good.

There’s dynamic sophomore guard Phenix Card, who was generally regarded as one of Northern Virginia’s best freshmen last year despite limited playing time due to Hayfield’s experienced talent. Parker Cage is a junior guard who figures to open up the offense from long range and play pressure defense. It’s really amazing how much talent returns, considering the loss of the six talented seniors plus guard Jahleel Jackson, who opted not to play this season after an injury in March.

There are other varsity returnees, including solid senior wing Sean Burton. There is plenty of young talent waiting to step up as well–once again, Hayfield’s JV will be loaded. Are the Hawks a threat to three-peat as state champions? Yes, but this year the Hawks have much less experience and much less room for error.

And, as Coach Poindexter says, a big target on their backs.

Last year the Edison Eagles gave Hayfield a couple of really tough games, falling to the state champs by three and five points in two of the teams’ matchups. Edison was also hit pretty hard by graduation, with six seniors graduating. In addition, standout forward DJ Thomas transferred to a private school in Maryland.

Like Hayfield, the Eagles still retain a lot of firepower. Nine seniors comprise the Eagles’ roster this season, though only a few of those guys have real varsity experience. One is junior Anthony Saunders, a tall guard with next-level prospects. Saunders has been an integral part of the rotation the past two years. He’s had some notable scoring games, now he’ll have the green light to really showcase his offensive skills.

“He’ll definitely take on a more active scoring role,” says Edison second-year Coach Tre’ Ford of Saunders. “He’s been putting in the work in the offseason, and he has a lot more confidence in his jumper.”

6’5″ senior wing Teddy Morgan is also back. He was the Eagles’ second leading scorer last season and the athletic wing figures to pour in points again this year. Like Saunders, he can be a problem for the opposition on defense as well.

Those two are a great foundation, but others are going to have to step up if the Eagles are to become a real postseason threat. Ford says returning senior shooting guard David Wetzler could fill the void of the graduated Cameron Kurka as a glue guy-type. No one is going to fill the role of Nader Chirchi, the 6’5″ strongman who owned the lane last year; however, the nine seniors on the roster should be able to help the Eagles matchup physically with their opponents.

There are other returnees on hand, plus a couple of transfers. Jerome Betts is a guard with some experience that arrives from Woodbridge, and Ford says sophomore Tristan Walton will also make an impact, after the 6’4″ shooting guard adapts to the Eagles’ style of play.

It’s no surprise that Hayfield and Edison are again strong candidates to finish atop the National District, but you may be surprised to learn the Thomas Jefferson Colonials are, too. While TJ lost some key components from last year’s team, Mark Gray-Mendes returns a lot of pieces that could be more than troublesome for the rest of the district.

Start with 6’6″ forward Sahil Kapadia, a first team all-district performer a year ago. Kapadia is a 12-point, eight-rebound guy on an average night last year, but he’s also an able rim protector and more-than-capable of passing out of double teams. Kapadia dealt with a hurt wrist over the offseason but should be ready to go by TJ’s first scrimmage. He’ll be a handful to deal with this year.

Kapadia’s injury did allow the Colonials to experiment with lineups in the Fall. TJ has several big bodies to supplement Kapadia, including 6’4″ junior Chetan Maviti. Gray-Mendes says Maviti has stepped up as a shot-blocker and continues to evolve as a stretch four. Also in the frontcourt is four-year varsity player Evan Huang, an experienced 6’3″ player who can operate on the block. 6’5″ junior Anish Khandavalli is also in the mix, so TJ will be able to rotate big bodies on opponents down low if necessary.

Gray-Mendes doesn’t have to go big–he has options to go small as well. Santiago Criado is three-year starter that excels in transition and can play the two, three, or even the four. Back from last year’s roster as well are guards Landon Gasperetti, Karthikeya Nandi, and Mihir Kulshreshtha. Kulshreshtha is an athletic point guard who was injured much of last year but will get a chance to run the show this year.

TJ is a dangerous team this season, in a district Gray-Mendes says is “undersold.” The Colonials don’t always have star power and depth, but they do this year. Don’t undersell them, for sure.

People have learned not to undersell the Annandale Atoms in recent years. The Atoms have scored some quality upsets, and last year finished third in the National behind Hayfield and Edison.

The Atoms did lose something like 80% of their scoring output from last year. However, one of the players they do return is a very good one, 6’4″ senior JR Nelson. Nelson is a versatile guard-forward you can run an offense through. He’s a fantastic passer, and a guy who can overpower guards yet outquick bigs. Nelson can bring the ball up the court if necessary. Even if he doesn’t, the Atoms will seek to get him a touch most times down the court.

Annandale’s JR Nelson is a do-it-all player who will get a ton of offensive touches this season.

Junior forward Noah Lenn also returns, and he brings valuable experience. A key name to remember is Jeff Pewett, who came over from Lake Braddock. Pewett can fill it up both on the drive and from deep, and he will almost certainly start alongside Lenn and Nelson.

Tyson Perkins played on the JV last year and there’s a good chance he’ll run the show at point guard. His end game will be to play tough defense and ensure Nelson, Lenn, and Pewett get their shots. Annandale can probably afford to lose its key players less than most teams, but there is some depth, to include Nelson and Pewett’s little brothers.

The Atoms are not a big team, but Annandale coach Jerome McAvoy says the Atoms will make that up in other ways.

“We’re scrappy, athletic, and physical,” he says. “Our strength will be playing man-to-man and forcing turnovers.”

Their key offensive players will have to stay relatively healthy, but that scrappiness can again pay off for the Atoms.

Like Annandale, the Falls Church Jaguars lost a massive chunk of their scoring output from last season. The Jags lost nine seniors from last year’s 12-12 team, including leading scorer DJ Kennard. In addition Caleb West, a starter last year, transferred to Flint Hill.

So, there’s going to be a lot of teaching for coach Darrian Mangum this year. His backcourt is talented, but extremely young. Sophomore Stefin Schneider was on the varsity last season–he immediately takes over as the team’s starting point guard. Freshman Jake Reed will get an opportunity to grab minutes at the two as the shooting guard of the future. Those guys will have the opportunity to gain valuable experience this year. Plus, senior shooter Evan Swift is on hand to lend experience and offensive firepower as a starter at the two or three.

The frontcourt does have some important returnees. 6’5″ senior Jamison Scott backed up West last year and now he’ll be the key player for Falls Church in the middle. Versatile junior forward Jalen Allen returns as well. Allen knows how to play defense and can handle the ball a little bit, helping the guards. If his shooting continues to improve and he can consistently be an offensive weapon, the Jags will benefit greatly.

6’1″ Ahmed Suliman arrives via transfer from Pennsylvania and Coach Mangum likes his potential and ability to play multiple positions. Depth will come from the JV team last year and it is key that they at the very least step up on the defensive end.

“I think we have the guys to score, although it will be a team-oriented approach,” says Mangum. “We have to play good defense to be successful.”

Stepping into the captain’s chair for the Justice Wolves is long-time Herndon and West Springfield assistant coach Matt Deuterman. Deuterman has been coaching around Northern Virginia for 18 years, so he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Wolves’ program.

Making the program a winning one will be difficult, as the Wolves have finished last in the National District the previous two seasons. Deuterman’s roster is young and inexperienced, so he’s got a lot of work to do.

“I’m excited…we’re going to be a work in progress, but right away I don’t want us to be a pushover, starting with protecting our house,” he says.

While the goal is always to win as soon as possible, the Wolves are in kind of a two-year cycle with only one senior on the roster. Deuterman’s core nucleus this season might be junior returnees Michael Jones, Asjal Ali, and point guard Sidi Mohamed Mouatassim El Alaoui. Ali and Jones are guards, but Deuterman says he may use Jones some at the bigger positions in an effort to improve his versatility.

Plenty of minutes can be earned by those who work hard and step up. Freshman point guard Isaiah Tedros will get an opportunity to earn time, as will post player and football standout Omar Gahein, once he rounds into basketball shape.

Justice’s progress will be worth monitoring this year.

We were unable to speak with the new coaches of the Lewis Lancers (Kevin Harris) and Mount Vernon Majors (Drew Miller). Lewis finished sixth in the district and Mount Vernon seventh; the Majors especially might be poised for a jump in the standings as they only graduated three seniors and have some notable young talent.

–Chris Jollay