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Shabach Christian puts itself on the map; Gaithersburg guard gets back on track


What is Shabach Christian Academy?

High school basketball fans across the D.C. area and beyond may have asked that question this winter, as the new Prince George’s County girls’ program has quickly established itself as a national heavyweight.

Coach Sam Caldwell and the Eagles have earned wins over some of the most celebrated teams from Texas to California. Caldwell started this program over the summer, coming to Shabach after a successful five-year run at New Hope Academy, another private school in Prince George’s.

Caldwell, who made his name in the D.C. area with a long run as the coach at Riverdale Baptist, won the Geico National championship in his second season at New Hope. But that’s not the experience he has leaned on this season as he gets things up and running at Shabach. He has reflected more on his first season at New Hope, when three of his players tore ACLs and he finished with the worst single-season record of his coaching career.

“No matter where you go, your first year is your first year. And the only good thing about it is you never have to experience it again,” Caldwell said. “But I feel lucky here, because I’ve had the best support I’ve ever had.”

Shabach is the educational arm of Caldwell’s church, the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. When the church decided to invest in a basketball program, Caldwell jumped at the opportunity and held his first team activity in July. The roster was a mix of holdovers from New Hope, girls he knew from AAU basketball and some far-flung transfers. The team is led by senior Laila Reynolds, a five-star Florida commit who has played for Caldwell all four years.

“When you have some bedrocks in the program like that, bringing in new kids becomes a little bit easier,” Caldwell said. “But we can’t take everyone, obviously. We’re looking for certain types of kids. We don’t need another Laila Reynolds; we’re looking for somebody to play with her.”

The No. 4 Eagles are 17-5 with a few weeks remaining in the regular season. In the postseason, they will compete for a title at the National Association of Christian Athletes tournament and hope for an invite to the Geico Nationals.

Gaithersburg guard healthy, thriving

Solomon Mensah’s Hyundai Sonata hydroplaned as he slammed on the brakes to avoid a bus that had suddenly stopped ahead of him.

The Gaithersburg boys’ basketball guard lost control of his car and smashed into the back of the bus, totaling his vehicle. Mensah emerged from the early December wreck holding his left wrist and with a pain in his chest.

The senior initially didn’t tell his coach. The season opener was just three days away and he didn’t want to risk missing the game. He played tentatively against Churchill in fear of further injury and scored just two points in the loss for the Trojans (12-2).

“I was overthinking everything,” Mensah said. “Just constant thoughts in my head like ‘Oh you’re going to hurt yourself’ … so I was just looking to pass the ball a lot.”

A few days later, he told Coach Jeff Holda.

“I just felt that I let my teammates down, let my coach down,” Mensah said. “In a way, telling my coach about what happened took a lot of stress off my shoulders.”

Mensah played better as he got further from the accident. Holda pinpointed the Dec. 13 game against Blair as one where Mensah “looked like who we had hoped” after a strong preseason.

But Mensah exited the game during the second quarter with a left high-ankle sprain and was out for the next four games, including Gaithersburg’s three-point loss to Parkville in the Governor’s Challenge. Forced to the bench, he stayed especially engaged, earning the nickname “Coach Solo” from his teammates.

“I just trying to keep the energy up and making sure everybody’s on the right page,” he said. “When we watch film, you can see me hopping on my right leg because I was so hyped.”

Mensah, who Holda said could be the team’s best player on any night, returned against Clarksburg on Jan. 3. Eight days later, he scored 24 points in the three-point Trojans win.

Margad Choijilsuren, Fairfax: Teams are running out of answers for the do-everything senior, whose 25-point outing in Tuesday’s comeback win over Alexandria City vaulted his Lions to the top of the Patriot District.

Nala Abraham, Gwynn Park: The junior had 17 points, 19 rebounds, seven blocks and two assists in the Clippers’ 52-29 win over Douglass on Thursday.

Donnie Freeman, St. John’s: The versatile junior stepped up in a big way for the Cadets Saturday against Philadelphia’s Springside Chestnut Hill at the Capitol Hoops Challenge. Freeman scored 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a 67-53 win.

Mina Hashemzadeh, Seneca Valley: The sophomore outscored Watkins Mill all by herself in a 26-point performance on Jan. 20.

Gwynn Park girls at Oxon Hill, Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Hammond girls at River Hill, Wednesday, 5:30 p.m.

Tuscarora boys at Loudoun County, Friday, 6 p.m.

Paul VI boys at Gonzaga, Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Osbourn Park gets jolt from freshmen

Playing for Osbourn Park is difficult. Practices are long, standards are high, and after Class 6 state championship losses in 2021 and 2022, external pressure is unavoidable.

Internally, however, Osbourn Park’s three seniors entered the season most curious about the composition of their roster. At first, they were shocked to learned that six freshmen had made the cut at tryouts. The surprises continued when several started to earn significant playing time, a feat none of the three seniors had accomplished in their first year under Coach Chrissy Kelly.

The biggest revelation, however? There was no reason to complain. These new Yellowjackets could hoop.

“These are the most talented freshmen I have ever been around,” senior Alana Powell said. “As a freshman, there isn’t supposed to be this [same level of] urgency that you have as a senior. But they go in and give us their all. These kids are tough.”

The season has come with its bumps, as most teams with a large group of underclassmen might expect. But it has been a welcome experience. Their skill sets as playmakers and defenders fit nicely into the No. 15 Yellowjackets’ scheme. The seniors, too, have enjoyed assuming captainships, even if it has meant they occasionally have to play the “bad guys.”

In last week’s 56-44 win over Patriot, the seniors saw a shift in their teammates. Unlike in an early-season loss to the Pioneers, there was a calculated aggression that rarely presents itself in younger players.

“They’re going from playing against 12- and 13-year-olds to 17-year-olds, so yeah, it was a challenge at first,” senior Kori Cole said. “But they’ve grown up quick, in the basketball sense.”

As for stress? Even with demanding practices, it’s nearly nonexistent.

“People put a lot of expectations on us,” senior Danielle Darfour said. “We don’t take that as pressure. We’re doing this for ourselves.”

Bard will travel (and win) anywhere

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the 25 or so Bard fans in attendance for the Falcons’ 69-63 win did their best to make Coolidge High feel like home. With no gym to call its own, Bard, a public application high school located in Southeast Washington, has learned to value those few precious moments when the sound of its fans fills another school’s gym as they lay claim to another win.

Despite the lack of a home-court advantage, Coach Malcolm Battle has led the second-year program to a 29-18 combined record, including an appearance in the D.C. State Athletic Association A division title game last season.

“People always ask me how we’ve done it with all the things working against us, and I just point back to the kids,” Battle said. “These kids have every reason to whine and complain about the things we don’t have, but they choose to keep showing up and rolling with the punches.”

In addition to playing each of its games on the road, Bard (15-5) bounced around various recreation centers throughout the city in search of a space to hold its practices. When the school originally opened in 2019, it operated out of what was formerly known as Davis Elementary School, which has no gymnasium.

The Falcons were forced to use Metro, walk or Uber to whatever gym that Battle, who doubles as the school’s athletic director, was able to secure for that day’s practice. It cut into the amount of time and the team had to actually practice.

“It’s been pretty rough for the last two years,” senior Damari Thompson said. “We always try to keep grinding no matter where we got to practice or play because it’s always going to be some adversity that you have to face in life, and you can’t just quit because things get inconvenient. But on the other hand, you see how other schools in the city have it, and in your head you’re just hoping and praying that one day we can get something close.”

Earlier this month, Thompson’s prayers were answered when Bard moved into a new building, located across the street from the Congress Heights Metro station; the facility has a weight room and gym for the team to use.

Since relocating, the Falcons have won eight of their past nine games and appear to be a real contender for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title.

“Having a consistent gym to practice in has been amazing,” Thompson said. “Instead of wondering where we’ll practice each day, we can put our full focus into going into other school’s house and getting wins.”

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