Many coaches prefer to ignore the hype surrounding their teams. Rankings, they say, are fluffy lists hoisted on fans by writers who have nothing better to talk about. Keep the numbers out of your head and focus on the opponent in front of you.
Glenn Farello isn’t one of those coaches. His Paul VI Catholic boys basketball team is currently ranked No. 4 in the country by MaxPreps and No. 1 in the DMV by The Washington Post. And he wants to make sure his players know it.
“The kids thrive on that kind of stuff, so why not use it?” Farello said. “I use them because it’s great acknowledgement for the kids. I aways just say, ‘Alright, now we have to go earn that ranking.’ I think it’s great to actually use it as motivation for the kids, to say, ‘Go prove these people right.’”
His strategy is paying off. With four starters returning from a squad that finished last season with 23 wins, the Panthers entered their 2013-14 campaign widely regarded as one of the most loaded teams in the nation. So far they haven’t disappointed, winning their first five games by an average margin of 29 points. That includes decisive wins against the other two teams currently ranked inside The Washington Post’s top three — they humbled No. 2 St. John’s 71-51 last Thursday, then cruised past No. 3 Montrose Christian 75-58 on Saturday.
Farello and company want to build off a 23-8 season that saw Paul VI pile up a number of impressive victories. They snapped No. 1 Oak Hill’s 56-game win streak to open the season, and later won the prestigious Bass Pro Tournament of Champions in Missouri thanks to a 69-67 win against Montverde Academy (FL), their second triumph over a team ranked No. 1 in the country.
Yet the Panthers must still tend to some unfinished business this winter. A year after capturing the school’s first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title, Paul VI came up short last February in a riveting double-overtime loss against Bishop O’Connell in the WCAC semifinals. Their season ended three days later with a 54-50 home defeat at the hands of Liberty Christian in the first round of the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state tournament.
Though the Panthers only have two seniors on the roster this year, they bring back six of their top eight contributors from last season. Aside from the graduation of Jamal Robinson, their only setback has been the season-ending injury of junior guard Franklin Howard, who tore his ACL in July.
So far, Paul VI has managed to fill that void with a handful of players who have taken their games to the next level this season. Chief among them is Tyler Scanlon, a 6-foot-6 sophomore forward at once capable of filling it up beyond the arc and scrapping for boards in the paint. Scanlon, a Centreville resident, stretches defenses by using his improved 3-point shooting to draw big defenders away from the basket. That opens space for guys like Marcus Derrickson, a 6-8 junior forward who recently committed to Georgetown, and Quadree Smith, a burly 6-7 center headed to UNC-Greensboro next year.
According to Scanlon, what makes this year’s squad so formidable has more to do with renewed focus than prodigious talent. The Panthers boast 11 players with Division 1 offers; over 80 college coaches dropped by their practices in September alone. Yet it’s the team’s ability to lock down on the task at hand that could lead them to glory this season.
“That’s the difference between this year and last year: Before every single game we’re ready to play,” said Scanlon, one of four Fairfax County residents on the roster. “There’s no clowning around. Everybody gets in their stretching and has their own rituals that they do before the game that’s always the same. When we make big runs towards the second quarter and the third quarter, that’s what it is. It’s all the preparation, it’s being ready to go and being conditioned enough when the moment arises.”
There may not be any goofing off before games, but there’s usually plenty of levity in the Panthers’ locker room afterward. After every game Farello doles out the Hard Hat Award to his team’s hardest-working performer and the Windex Award to the player who cleaned up on the glass with the most rebounds. The team’s 1,465 Twitter followers can check out post-game images of the award winners cheesing in front of the camera with the trusty hard hat and Windex bottle in tow.
The camaraderie instilled by such rituals reinforces the team motto: Share the game. Coaches and players make sacrifices wherever they can for the good of the team, keeping relationships tight on and off the court so that they can remain a family wherever they go.
“We want to share it with each other,” Farello said. “These kids are all talented, but they’re all willing to sacrifice a little bit of their own games so that they can be part of something bigger than themselves... You don’t come here if it’s all about your own stats, your own minutes, your own points. The kids understand that, and they welcome that.”
Farello’s squad isn’t the only group drawing national attention to Paul VI basketball. The girls team (5-1), fresh off a seventh consecutive VISAA state title, is currently ranked No. 2 in The Washington Post’s poll and No. 5 in the country according to MaxPreps. California’s Mater Dei is the only other school to have boys and girls teams inside the top five.
Like Farello, coach Scott Allen has cemented his girls team as one of the top programs in the country by putting together a brutal schedule featuring contests against national powers every year. Farello’s squad will head down to Fort Myers, Florida this weekend for the City of Palms Classic, while Allen’s bunch will gear up for next week’s trip down to the Naples Shootout.
Even as they travel to tournaments around the country, Farello and Allen want to emphasize the quality of basketball in their own backyard.
“D.C. Basketball, there’s nothing better in the country,” Farello said. “What we’re real proud of, and same thing with Coach Allen, is that in Northern Virginia we can show that we can be pretty good out here. It doesn’t have to be all D.C. and Maryland. Virginia is part of that, and I think we’ve established that over the last few years. It is a big deal to me. I want to be able to prove that we can play.”