Highland School (Warrenton, VA)
Classification: Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) Division II
Conference: Delaney Athletic Conference (DAC)
2018-19 overall record: 25-6 (12-0 in conference)
2018-19 season achievements: DAC regular season champions, DAC tournament champions
Whenever I find myself ending up in a conversation (or scouting) that focuses on a team(s) within the Delaney Athletic Conference, aka the DAC, I can’t help but feel some nostalgia. Years ago, I had my own high school ball playing days in that same conference, which holds 15 private school programs from around Northern and Central Virginia. I can recall my last two years of high school, 2012-13 and 2013-14, as a stretch in which many felt the conference was at its prime in producing college-caliber talent. These past four seasons, the Hawks of Highland School have completely controlled the DAC, as they’ve won four regular season titles and three conference tournament championships since 2015-16. Their lineup will appear a bit different compared to this past winter but, with talent still residing and having entered into the program, it’s looking like that same narrative of success will continue.
What We Know
- A main obstacle that Highland has struggled overcoming the last couple of seasons pertains to getting past the quarterfinal round of the VISAA Division II state tournament. Their 2018-19 year would see them make another earlier exit than desired after losing an away contest to Miller School (Charlottesville, VA) on February 27th. A big group of six seniors, two of which served as second and third team leading scorers, graduated from the team’s 2019 class. On the other hand, four additional prospects decided to make transfer moves. The notion would make one think that Highland is going through a phase of rebuilding after seeing many faces depart. Regardless of the possible perception, I don’t see them having to really rebuild at all, considering that this 2019-20 roster could have solid depth likewise to the former group.
- To begin Wednesday’s workout, 16 of the Hawks met up at the training center of Old Town Athletic Campus, located a mere couple of blocks from their high school. Spending 2-3 times a week for a full focus on strength/agility training has become a norm for the Hawks since last year. I definitely respected the approach and took note of how well their upperclassmen have developed into their bodies since I last saw Highland play in June at Session I of the inaugural Virginia Live Period Shootout. After an hour of training the body, Highland immediately drove right back down the street for one last hour and 15 minutes of court time. The layout of their workout on the hardwood left me even more impressed, as coaches split the players up in three different groups for stations of drill execution, skill development/1v1 play, and conditioning.
- As I mentioned earlier, there’s no doubt that natural talent and enthusiasm once again shows up in the Hawks’ gym. However, if I had to nitpick for a specific fault, I’d say the team’s youth must be acknowledged. Coming off of an appearance in this past weekend’s Christopher Newport University Team Camp (9/29), the coaching staff realizes that the young ones will need to learn more on both sides of the ball before fully becoming acclimated to the challenges of varsity competition. As I always say, however, benefits usually arise at some point from throwing young prospects into the fire early on, even if they have to take their lumps.
- Personally, I absolutely feel Highland has a chance of sustaining their DAC dominance once conference play starts up again. However, as good as it may sound, one can get a sense after discussing with the staff that success in the DAC only makes up a bit of the program’s satisfaction. Any team would want to remain at the top of their conference but capturing a state championship remains as the highest achievement. In Highland’s case, like most teams, they won’t feel content until attaining that VISAA state chip. Loading up on their schedule this year for games against many top VISAA Division II and III foes will help prepare them for when the 2020 state playoffs arrive.
Who to Watch
* Obviously, with weeks left until tryouts, the roster remains unofficial. Still, several guys stood out during my visit, whom all I feel can make notable contributions if they fill a roster spot.
Angelo Brizzi ’21 – The reigning DAC Player of the Year returns back for two more seasons as an upperclassman, which I’m sure has everybody in the conference on alert. In terms of getting buckets, Brizzi’s an absolute stud. He’s 6’3” with an incredibly smooth three-level scoring game and sneaky athleticism to do pretty much whatever he wants on the court. The junior’s shooting prowess arguably draws the first look but I feel his playmaking also deserves recognition, along with defensive instincts. One could glance at Brizzi’s 2018-19 season averages of 17.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.5 apg, and 3.3 spg to gain a feel for the versatility within his game. Being one of only two returners, I’m sure even greater leadership will be asked of the shooting guard. NCAA Division I mid-major coaches have been on him hard lately, with the most recent offers coming from Lehigh University and Yale in the past 1.5 weeks.
Zion Hanberry ’20 – As the sole senior, this Highland crew will clearly rest under Hanberry’s guidance as a veteran and I have no doubt he’ll deliver as that senior leader every successful team needs. The 6’2” guard contains one of, if not, the best physical frame out of the group I saw on Wednesday and uses it well for rim drives. Shooting-wise, he can create for his own a bit mainly from step-backs and also play well off of the ball. The coaching staff has referred to Hanberry as one of those ‘do-it-all’ guys who brings a valuable presence. I think his junior season stats of 5.7 ppg, 4 rpg, and 2.5 apg will all make a big jump now that he should become tasked of taking on a bigger role. His smarts both on and off the court has led to much interest and offers from NCAA Division II and III schools.
Sam Wells ’22 – After playing on the JV squad last year as a freshman, Wells looks like another one who’s put in the work to physically mature for a possible shot at contributing on the varsity level. Similar to Hanberry, he’s very strong and also showed a good quickness during the team workout. I liked how well the 6’1” guard kept his eyes on the rim for soft finishes after making moves to pound his way toward the basket. Wells’ control with the ball and burst of speed could result in defenders having a tough time containing him, which obviously gives Highland another perimeter threat. I’m keeping an eye on him for sure, as I’m still trying to truly figure out all of his capabilities. Nevertheless, I left the gym impressed with his competitiveness and demeanor on Wednesday.
Yusef Salih ’21 – When I heard the news that Salih was transferring into the Hawks’ program, I knew it would give them a great ‘3&D’ threat that could fit into their system well. After a good 2018-19 year at Patriot High School (Nokesville, VA) that saw him earn second team All-Cedar Run District recognition, I saw the 6’2” guard a couple of times this past summer with Higher Level 17u Premier and in player showcases. Every time, he knew how to stand out with his sharpshooting and defensive ability to slow down others with the ball. Now, Salih appears like he’s put on muscle and improved his handle to become a better shot creator. Those two developed features should complement his scoring package nicely and make him even more lethal on that end. If there’s ever a future scenario of him, Brizzi, and Hanberry all heating up at the same time…oh, man.
Patrick O’Brien ’23 – After first watching him in the ‘ASSIST DMV Top 100 High School Showcase’ (8/18/19), in which he landed a spot on the All-Camp team, I’m still feeling convinced that the youthful O’Brien is bound for a big-time high school career. He’s already 6’7” and can stretch the floor as a forward with shooting skills. During Wednesday’s 1v1 action, the freshman did excellent in changing speeds and using his length to stretch out for finishes in less than three dribbles from outside of the perimeter. O’Brien’s height advantage can aid in a way of establishing himself on the block but there’s much more to his game than simple inside moves. He’s already fairly skilled and should only go up from here. Coaches definitely need to mark him on their list of 2023 guys…I see some heavy promise at that age.
Roman Barshow ’22 – A transfer from Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) powerhouse Paul VI Catholic High School (Fairfax, VA), Barshow can bring size and shooting to the roster. His 6’5” frame made him the second tallest player in attendance, after O’Brien, but there’s obviously perimeter strengths in Barshow’s game firstly. He shoots it well from distance as a spot-up guy and seems to have become a little more comfortable putting the ball on the floor for quick separation moves. I still feel he could produce in the paint some for Highland also, if called upon, due to how mismatches likely will emerge at certain times. The sophomore can rise up for some flushes above the rim if defenses get caught sleeping. Add him to the list of 2022 prospects whom I’m interested to see more of this winter.
Kai Johnson ’23 – Even as another youngster, there’s a chance for Johnson to take on a big role at the point guard spot. He’s one of few primary ball-handlers I saw in Highland’s group and definitely shows all of the intangibles one at that position must possess. He’s silky with his moves, crafty at the basket, and can make shots from different levels off of VERY quick pull-ups. It’s easy to see his peers and coaches are high on what Johnson can bring to the table so I have a feeling that more folks will become familiar with his name quite soon. Having plenty of varsity scorers around, the 5’9” freshman’s role would likely revolve around mainly getting everyone involved on a consistent basis. Still, he’s capable of posting points on his own too.
Isaiah Abraham ’24 – Ok, so I’ve stated in the past how I usually try not to evaluate too hard on players before they enter the ninth grade. Most of the time, it’s often difficult to do and quite simply not all that fair for them. However, after seeing him work out and discussing with others, I feel like it is safe to say Abraham may very well emerge as a high talent in years to come. I mean, it’s in his blood; the 6’0” guard’s 6’7” dad played as a men’s basketball standout at Marquette University and later became a professional overseas, while Abraham’s 6’3” aunt currently stands as the all-time leading scorer in George Washington University’s women’s basketball history and now works as an assistant coach for the ladies’ team at George Mason University. Abraham already passes the ‘eye test’ with his lengthy arms and noticeable finesse. He had some exceptional shot-making moments during the station of competitive play; cashing in baskets at different areas off of the bounce. As long as he keeps working hard and stays focused to continually learn the game, I don’t see what could prevent him from reaching that same outcome (or higher) as his relatives.
Where You Can Find Them
- ‘64thAnnual Sleepy Thompson Basketball Tournament,’ hosted by St. Stephen’s St. Agnes School (Alexandria, VA); December 5-7, 2019
- ‘DMV Elite Governor’s Challenge,’ hosted at Wicomico Civic Center, MD; December 26 – 30, 2019
- Hosted ‘Highland Hoops Holiday Classic’; January 4, 2020
A Word from the Head Honcho
“This likely will be a very different group, specifically in terms of age. We may have a lot of guys without varsity experience. Still, from a basketball perspective, our yearly goals don’t ever change. We always aim to win the regular season and postseason tournament in our conference. Our third goal is to always win the state championship. That’s something we’ve fell a bit short on for the last few years but we feel like we just need to keep knocking down the door to get to that (VISAA Division II state tournament Final Four) weekend at Virginia State University (Chester, VA). Once getting there, you never know what can happen. That’s certainly a main objective of ours as we keep building this program. Our theme this year will be ‘connected.’ It goes for both coaches and players; being a group that celebrates each other’s success. If someone does something well on the floor, it should make everyone else feel good as an individual. So, we want to be the most CONNECTED team that we’ve ever had. That’s another kind of personal goal of mine for this group, especially having with young players present. I feel that’s an important piece.
– Head Coach Brian Hooker (3rd year)
Achieving wins in VISAA Division II will come as anything but easy this year. There’s no question about that, based on what I’ve seen already. I’d go as far to say it may just result as the most competitive division in the classification. Still, there’s much to appreciate about Highland’s preseason approach and they can absolutely continue as one of Northern Virginia’s best private school programs if they get everyone on the same page once the first buzzer sounds for game time action. Brizzi’s brought in NCAA Division I programs from all over the country but I recommend coaches to not sleep on others on the above list also. I’m more than eager to see what the team’s growth can lead to.
Did you hear that screech? It’s just the Hawks showing they’re ready to mark their territory at the top of the DAC once again.