With about five seconds remaining and the score tied at 61 in a game between The Heights School and Saint Albans earlier this season, a St. Albans guard pushed the ball up the court and sent a pass toward the baseline where a teammate was making a cut. He jumped out of bounds to save the ball under the basket and the buzzer sounded. But at the same time, so did a whistle. A referee called a foul on The Heights and St. Albans was in the double bonus.
Both free throws would be made and The Heights ultimately began its season with a heart-wrenching loss.
Should there have been overtime? Probably. But the call was made and so began the theme that has been defining the Cavaliers ever since: resilience.
“We felt that game was ours, that we should have won,” junior forward Nicholas Segura said. “Just being robbed of such a close game. It was in our hands. We were at their place, they had a good crowd … but we came together as a team.”
“I think a lot of times, in a game like that, the kids can go either way,” Heights coach Sunny Hemphill said. “We all know, in life, you can do all the right things and negative things might happen to you. We have deep character kids and they were able to use that loss.”
A week later, on Dec. 7 at Georgetown Prep, that resilience would be put to the test one more time in a game which Segura said they “really wanted to make a splash.”
And what a splash they made.
The Cavs eventually found themselves trailing by 12 points in the first quarter.
But they rallied and for the first time in nearly two decades — 19 years is the exact count — The Heights beat Georgetown Prep, 62-56.
“We were so excited about the win,” said Segura, who is averaging 10 points per contest, but was limited to just four in the win. “We really enjoyed that night. It was like everything we wanted to accomplish this season.”
With some old school scrappiness, The Heights, a 12-13 team last season, has caught many by surprise this year, none more than those in the Georgetown Prep student section two weeks ago.
“I'd like to think we're kind of a nice, small school team,” Hemphill said. “You'd like to think you're a nice surprise and teams kind of take the night off against you.”
Georgetown Prep coach Herb Krusen said it's not so much that teams look past The Heights, it's more that not many know much — or anything — about them.
“I had never seen them play,” he said. “I hadn't seen them in summer league, regular season … I really didn't know anything about them.”
Alongside national powers such as Montrose Christian, Princeton Day and Riverdale Baptist, The Heights competes in the Independent Conference where the schedule isn't limited exclusively to local competition. Montrose plays all over the country and Riverdale Baptist recently played against the nation's top-ranked team, Huntington Prep, and top-rated recruit Andrew Wiggins.
“We have a much tougher schedule this year,” junior shooting guard Isaiah Grigsby said. “We're on the rise. We're a great team in the Potomac area.”
Although there are no Huntington Prep's on the Cavaliers' agenda this year, The Heights will face Bullis, St. John's College High School and Avalon, all strong teams in the surrounding area.
“We definitely set high standards after beating Georgetown Prep,” sophomore point guard Kyle Depollar said. “We just want to stay confident and stay humble.”
Fitting to the underdog theme that seems to be surrounding them, the Cavaliers don't have a gaudy record or a high-profile recruit that draws a packed gym night in and night out. As of Sunday, they were 3-4 and their leading scorer, Depollar, is averaging a modest 13 points per game. Everything they have accomplished this season has been done with an injury-laden lineup that's brimming with youth.
Junior shooting guard Jake Kingma and senior small forward Austen Smith — one of just three seniors on the team — both of whom were expected starters, missed the first six games with a sprained ankle and a concussion, respectively. Segura, the team's third leading scorer, is out with an ankle injury of his own.
After a Dec. 20 matchup with Bullis, the Cavaliers will go on a mini holiday, not playing again until Jan. 3. By then, Hemphill hopes to have a fully healthy team. But, healthy as they may be, they will have lost the element of surprise that knocked the Little Hoyas slightly off canter.
Hemphill seems to be okay with that.
“If you play the same way enough times, you'll build a reputation,” he said. “We've built one from hard work and playing hard.”