When Isaiah Colclough tells the story of the toughest coach he's ever had, he typically gets only one word in before listeners do a double take.
“She,” Colclough begins, “was a police officer, a female police officer. She was always hard on me. She was hard on me more than others on the team, because she saw the potential in me, I think.”
Colclough, a rising senior, is realizing the potential Yolanda Alexander saw — hallmarked by his athleticism and toughness — as he takes over the starting point guard position for the Landon School boys basketball team.
Two years ago, Colclough made the varsity team as a sophomore. While Landon coach Andy Luther was trying to impress upon players the need to work hard and dive for loose balls, Colclough just thought about playing for Alexander while in elementary school.
“That's what separated me from some of the other people trying to make the team,” said Colclough, an Upper Marlboro resident who played for Alexander at a D.C. Boys & Girls Club. “I was already prepared to do those things, and other people were preparing. I learned those from her.”
After serving as a defensive specialist off the bench as a sophomore and starting small forward as a junior, Colclough is poised to step in at point guard. He'll replace the physical Joe McDonald, who is headed to George Washington University after averaging 22.8 points and 10.9 rebounds per game as a senior last winter.
“I like strong point guards,” Luther said. “I like guards who like to mix it up and get rebounds.”
Thanks to Alexander's toughness, Colclough fits that profile.
“Being the female, they, I think, anticipated that it would be an easier ride for them,” said Alexander, also an Upper Marlboro resident. “But they soon realized that I was tougher, I believe, than a male was.”
Colclough said he had to run 30 laps each practice — as a warmup. Alexander said it was more like 50 to 100.
And that was nothing compared to a trip to Florida for a tournament. The team lost all six of its games, but that didn't anger Alexander as much as how timidly her team played.
Before one game, an opponent dunked during warm-ups.
“My boys were like 'Oh my god,'” Alexander said. “They were like, 'We're doomed.'”
And then they played like it. Angered her team had come so far only to give up, Alexander banned her players from swimming in the pool at the house they had rented for the week. Instead she had them crab-walking down the street as curious neighbors watched.
“I got some tears from them,” Alexander said proudly.
And when the team returned from Florida?
“I've never ran so much in my life,” Colclough said. “We ran outside for hours.”
But Colclough learned his lesson, one that's helping Landon today.
“We felt some of these teams might be superior to us,” Colclough said. “But they really weren't. It was a psychological thing. I think she was just teaching us we have to always play hard and to our fullest, no matter who the opponent is. And that's what I try to bring to this team and to my teammates.”
Alexander made Colclough cry once. Bigger than his classmates, he had always played center, but she saw his athleticism and moved him to guard. One day at practice, Colclough was turning the ball over too much at his new position, and Alexander was giving him a hard time.
“The kid's little eyes welled up. Oh my goodness,” Alexander said. “I said, 'Oh my god.' He hurt my heart. I said, 'Are you crying.' And he said, 'No, ma'am.' They cried and whatever, but they know I loved them. It was just tough love.”
At the time, Colclough said, he didn't quite get that.
“I was always just like, 'She's the meanest coach' and 'Why am I playing?'” said Colclough, who has drawn interest from Brown, Yale, Cornell, Penn and Columbia. “But looking back, like I said, I credit all my success to her.”
And that tickles Alexander, who said she had no idea she made such an impact on Colclough.
“He's special,” Alexander said. “I'm pretty sure he'll be successful in whatever he decides to do, related to sports or otherwise. His family — he has a really good foundation.”