Turns out Mount St. Mary sophomore Damian Chong Qui is a pretty good evaluator of college basketball talent.
Coming out of McDonogh School in 2017, Chong Qui thought he was a Division I prospect. Only trouble was Division I coaches didn’t share that opinion.
“I thought I had worked pretty hard throughout my high school career, played against a lot of guys that were going away to college to play Division I, and that was frustrating,” he said.
Frustrating because no offers came for the diminutive point guard, McDonogh’s all-time leader in assists.
“I could have played Division II or Division III, but I kind of had my mind set what level I wanted to play at,” Chong Qui said.
And after a somewhat circuitous route, that’s just what the slight, 5-foot-8, 145-pound guard is doing at The Mount. He’s not only playing, but starring in Division I basketball. He leads the Mountaineers with 12.6 points and 3.9 assists per game and ranks fourth in the Northeast Conference with a 2.1-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
Not bad for a guy who couldn’t find a Division I scholarship, even at The Mount at first. Now Mount head coach Dan Engelstad is a true believer, too.
“His motor makes him special,” Engelstad said. “He’s going to play really, really hard. He’s going to guard you. He’s going to get up underneath you. He’s super tough. He doesn’t take plays off and then he doesn’t turn the ball over. He’s really smart with his reads and the plays he can make.”
But Chong Qui spent the 2017-18 school year at Bronx, N.Y., prep school Our Savior Lutheran, and as he was finishing up there were still no Division I offers. Finally, in the summer of 2018, less than two months before classes started at Mount St. Mary’s, the Mountaineers offered Chong Qui a chance to walk on at the Emmitsburg, Md., school.
“I was thinking about going to a JuCo in New Mexico,” Chong Qui said. “I didn’t think I had any choices.”
Engelstad had seen Chong Qui play in high school when he was scouting another player, but that was even before Engelstad got the job at Mount St. Mary’s two years ago. Mount assistant Matt Miller had also seen Chong Qui play when Miller was a high school coach in Hagerstown, Md.
“I had known of Damian, but didn’t know where he had gone from McDonogh, and we were kind of in desperate need at point guard but didn’t have any scholarships,” Engelstad said. “We gave him a chance to walk on. We liked him as a player.”
So the Baltimore native landed on a painfully young — nine freshmen and seven sophomores — Mount roster last season on the way to a 9-22 finish. He appeared in all 31 games, proving his point that he could play point in Division I. Then he took it even further, moving in as a starter in early December and starting the final 24 games.
Chong Qui averaged 6.8 points, 3.7 assists and 2.8 rebounds, upping those numbers to 8.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in NEC play. Engelstad put him on scholarship this past offseason.
“My first year at The Mount was like a roller coaster,” he said. “I had my mind set that I was going to come in and contribute. I had a chip on my shoulder that I was going to prove to the coaches or any school that we played against that I could play on that level.”
Chong Qui never lost faith as he worked so hard to find his place in college basketball. That drive is no random occurrence. Chong Qui has seen determination up close and personal. His father, Edward, was shot in the back in 2010, and has been paralyzed ever since, confined to a wheelchair.
“My father is a pretty stubborn guy,” Damian said. “I think being around him, I kind of adopted some of that. No matter what people told me or what people had to say about me, I was set on what I wanted and me getting there.”
Edward isn’t easily deterred either. He drives a handicapped-accessible van to run errands and gets to his son’s games. He regularly made the four-hour drive to see him play in New York two years ago, and now the 50-minute trek from Baltimore to The Mount is a breeze.
“Me and my father’s relationship is definitely close and one of the most unique relationships you’ll hear about,” Damian said. “We’ve been together my whole life. It has always been just me and him.”
Damian lost his mother, Lisa Renee Brown, in a shooting in 2002, when he was just 4 years old.
“So it has always been just me and him,” he said. “So there was never that extra outlet for me to go to. It was just me and my father. If we had an argument it wasn’t like I could go to my mom to fix things. Sometimes I think we’re almost like brothers, we’re so close. We can talk about anything.”
Father supported his son in his dream, and they both liked the opportunity Engelstad was providing. They liked it even more this past offseason when the coaches came to Damian and told him he was going on full athletic scholarship.
“It was very emotional for me,” Chong Qui said. “Coach called me in his office and told me. I called my Dad, and he said, ‘It’s about time.'”
Damian, with some help from his grandmother, is a primary caregiver for his father, who he talks to “three or four times a day.” He gets home as much as he can, especially if his help is needed.
“My father was shot when I was 12, and that was a big change for me. I think I definitely matured a lot earlier and had a lot of responsibility. I think that helped me with basketball. Seeing what happened to him, one day walking and the next unable, it made me appreciate things more. I realize everything can be gone very fast.”
Growing up with so much responsibility probably makes bringing the ball up the court against a press in a tight game pretty insignificant, but Chong Qui’s perpetually positive attitude, particularly as a floor leader, is a key part of the Mountaineers’ climb back up the NEC standings.
“Last year was tough for us because we didn’t have a lot of experience,” Chong Qui said. “I think the biggest thing for us was just maturing. The experience last year has helped us this year. We were all here this summer working and we’ve got a close bond as a team.”
The Mountaineers are 10-15 overall, already more wins than last year, and in the middle of the pack with six conference wins. Chong Qui is part of a young nucleus that has a big future. Go tell it on The Mount.
“He’s just one of those of guys you can really depend on,” Engelstad said. “He just works. You’re never going to question Damian’s effort.”
And that’s what Chong Qui was trying to tell Division I coaches all along.
All statistics are entering Mount St. Mary’s game against St. Francis Feb. 15.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mount St. Mary’s Athletics