They came into the season ranked No. 1 among Baltimore-area high school girls’ basketball teams.
But the real challenge for head coach Brad Rees and his players at McDonogh School was finishing the season in that position, even with a roster loaded with eight Division I athletes.
“That’s not always an easy thing to do,” said Rees, who just finished his 14th season as the coach of the Eagles. “There is a great deal of ego supplication involved, and it’s not always easy getting the players to buy into that.”
By the end of the season, after McDonogh had toppled St. Frances, 77-65, on Feb. 21 to win its first Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship since 2015 and St. Frances’ five-year reign at the top, the stat sheet told the true story.
The top four scorers on the team all finished between 259 and 265 points for the season, according to Rees, in a remarkably balanced scoring effort.
Junior guard Paris Locke was one of four scorers in double figures for McDonogh in the IAAM championship game with a game-high 24 points. The others were senior center Delaney Yarborough (13 points), senior forward Nekhu Mitchell (11) and junior guard Makaela Quimby (10).
The Eagles (22-4), who finished the season on a 16-game winning streak and never lost to a Maryland team all season, won because of their togetherness as much as their talent, according to their coach.
“As I reflect on the season, that’s one of the things I am most proud of,” Rees said. “They became a good team, not just a group of very good players.”
The same could be said of the basketball team at Mount Saint Joseph this season.
Under the guidance of longtime coach Pat Clatchey, who won his 750th game in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship game on Feb. 27, the Gaels (32-7) molded their team around the talents of their two best players, Amani Hansberry and Bryson Tucker, with many other players providing valuable contributions.
The result was a second consecutive MIAA A Conference title and eighth Baltimore Catholic League tournament championship under Clatchey, who has coached at Mount Saint Joseph for 30 seasons.
“Really good group of young men,” Clatchey said. “They were guys that worked hard. They were coachable. They got along. … We got better as the season went along, and we got better on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively.”
Sophomore guard Tucker and junior guard Ace Valentine each scored 20 points to lead the way for the Gaels in a 63-60 victory against Mount Carmel in the MIAA A championship game.
Hansberry, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, helped Mount Saint Joseph overcome a pair of regular-season losses to St. Frances with 12 points and 21 rebounds in the Baltimore Catholic League championship game for a 66-56 victory against the Panthers. He was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
But they weren’t the only players who shined for the Gaels. Sophomore Tyonne Farrell emerged as a scorer and defender during the course of the season. Senior forward Aidan Mess complemented Hansberry well around the basket. And Valentine was a scorer and defensive stopper throughout the season and made the final basket to help seal the MIAA championship victory.
“Winning championships is not easy,” Clatchey said. “I think a lot of people thought our team was like a year away. But I told our guys that when you are on the court, your jerseys don’t say sophomore. If you can play, you can play.”
In December, the McDonogh girls challenged themselves by going out to Arizona to play in a national invitational tournament with other elite high school teams from across the country.
During the trip, the Eagles were hit by a COVID-19 outbreak that affected their performance on the court. They suffered three of their four losses in the tournament.
But, aside from the illness, Rees thought it was a valuable experience for his players.
“They realized there were teams out there as much or more talent than our team,” he said. “And the only way you can compete with those teams is to be a better team.”
At the end of the season, that’s exactly what the McDonogh girls and the Mount St. Joseph boys were, as they both raised trophies above their heads.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of McDonogh and Mount Saint Joseph