Three Sidwell Friends Girls' basketball players stand arm in arm in a gym
From left to right: Kendall Dudley, Kiki Rice, and Jadyn Donovan Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Tamika Dudley’s voice rises above the sound of squeaking shoes on the basketball court. “Offense, you need to make them work!” she shouts. “Sprint!” It’s a few minutes after 3:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and the players for the Sidwell Friends girls’ basketball team are split into pairs—one plays offense, the other defense—for the “corner deny” drill. They move their feet quickly side to side, mimicking a game situation in which the defense forces turnovers and denies the opposing team’s offense a clear passing lane.

Less than 24 hours ago, the team had beaten Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, 73-57, to improve to 7-0 in the season. But Dudley, the team’s head coach, isn’t satisfied. The team didn’t put enough defensive pressure on its opponent and allowed Visitation to keep pace throughout the first half. “We were late and we were resting on defense, instead of being early and getting the steal,” Dudley says.

Sidwell has high expectations for the season. ESPN ranks the Quakers as the No. 1 girls’ basketball team in the nation, a first for a program that has not been historically considered a powerhouse in the sport, locally or nationally. Three Sidwell players are ranked in ESPN’s top 10 for their class: senior Kiki Rice, a UCLA commit, junior Jadyn Donovan, and sophomore Kendall Dudley, Coach Dudley’s daughter. In her first season with Sidwell three seasons ago, Dudley led Sidwell to a 25-6 record—“I thought we overachieved,” she says—while the COVID-19 pandemic prevented players from competing as a high-school team last season.

With the hot 8-0 start, Sidwell is looking to make history this season and joins a rich tradition of top-ranked girls’ basketball programs and players from the D.C. area. Three other local schools, all private, are currently in the ESPN high-school girls’ basketball top 25 ranking: New Hope Academy in Landover (No. 10), Bishop McNamara in Forestville (No. 15), and St. Paul VI Catholic in Chantilly (No. 22). New Hope won the girls’ title at the GEICO High School Basketball Nationals in 2019, and the year before, McNamara and St. John’s College High School both consistently ranked within the top three best teams in the country.

Dudley’s team is calling next.

“Every day in practice we compete, and I think knowing that we’re the No. 1 team, it reminds us that we have a target on our back and everyone’s gonna bring their A game against us,” Rice says. “But it’s great to see the work pay off and the recognition.”

Tamika Dudley Credit: Kelyn Soong

The middle school at Sidwell Friends is located on the same campus as its high school in Northwest D.C., so young kids who attend the school have close access to one of their heroes: Kiki Rice. “Middle school kids come up and get her autograph,” Dudley says. “She’s like a superstar around here.”

Rice lives in Bethesda and has been playing basketball since she was 5 or 6 years old. She started playing because of her older brother. She wanted to do everything he did. Whenever her dad and brother would go down to a neighbor’s house to shoot hoops, Rice begged to join. She also practiced with her aunt, Susan Rice, the current director of the Domestic Policy Council, and a former National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama. Susan played basketball while attending Oxford University.

“She’s definitely been like a great role model for me as a leader and just a really strong woman that I look up to,” Rice says of her aunt. 

As for basketball, the 5-foot-11 point guard currently ranked the No. 2 player in the Class of 2022 by ESPN also had plenty of players to admire growing up in the D.C. area. Rice attended basketball camps at St. John’s College High School and remembers watching Ashley Owusu play while she competed for Paul VI. Owusu is currently a junior guard at the University of Maryland and one of the best college players in the country.

“Just constantly hearing about all the top talent and all the great players in the area, it was like, ‘I want to be like that,’” says Rice, who has goals of eventually playing in the WNBA.

Owusu also credits older players as an inspiration. Talent and a passion for the game of basketball surrounded Owusu everywhere she went. She believes that obsession for the sport can partially explain why the DMV has produced so much basketball talent. It wasn’t just high school competition that fueled Owusu. She experienced the competitive atmosphere at the Dale City Recreation Center in Woodbridge, where she trained.

“Every night you go in there, there’d be like 100 kids in there just training, yelling at each other, just playing pickup, having fun,” Owusu says. 

Local basketball trainer and coach Katie Fudd is hard-pressed to think of an area in the country that develops and produces the same amount of talent as the D.C. area, at least not one of its geographical size. Fudd considers Northern Virginia, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and D.C. proper all part of the sometimes vaguely defined area. “When you think about it, it’s really not that big comparatively,” she says.

To Fudd, the resources, access to elite training, competition, and variety of strong private school basketball programs are unmatched. Private schools, unlike public schools, can recruit players outside school boundaries, and often have the money for extra resources, like a dedicated strength and conditioning staff, that draw in talented basketball players. It can be hard for public schools to retain that talent when there are so many strong private school programs in the area.

“You get kids looking at schools and you’re looking at academics and you’re looking at what can the coach bring, what can your teammates bring, it’s essentially like picking a college but in high school,” Fudd says. “And you’re trying to find the best fit and the best place for your kid and the public schools typically just don’t have that; they don’t have that high level of competition … It’s just really hard to field the kind of teams that private schools can.”

Plus, young athletes here love to play basketball. Fudd’s daughter, Azzi, currently plays for the women’s basketball team at the University of Connecticut, and was the top-ranked player in her class while competing for St. John’s. In 2019, she was named the Gatorade National Girls’ Basketball Player of Year—the first sophomore to win the award. 

“I think we have what you call a hotbed,” Katie says. “I think there’s a lot of kids playing. There’s a lot of athletes and a lot of kids who decide basketball as their sport and work on that craft. And that creates a lot of competition. And then the cream rises to the top with that … You get some good players from smaller areas, but it’s hard to be the best player around all the time. I mean, it’s easier to raise your level when other people are raising theirs too.”

Like Fudd, Dudley has seen the talent grow even more in recent years with the popularity of Amateur Athletic Union and other youth basketball circuit leagues such as the Nike Youth Basketball League. Dudley is a 1999 graduate of Woodbridge High School in Prince William County. She attended Long Island University in Brooklyn, where she became one of the program’s best players. Dudley recalls that in high school, there was only one AAU team in all of Prince William County. Now companies such as Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas all have their own basketball travel team circuit leagues. Fudd is the founder of the GTS Fusion team that competes in the Girls Under Armour Association circuit. 

“I definitely think there’s more opportunity and kids are no longer just shut out because they couldn’t make the best team,” Dudley says. “Even like a middle-of-the-road kid now can play on a team and still have opportunity to play and grow and then maybe kind of grow their talent, where people may not have seen it in the past.”

The Sidwell Friends practice lasts for more than two hours. When they’re done, the coaches and players huddle in the center of the court.  

“We were out of sync,” Dudley says, referring to the Visitation game. “I was not pleased with our defensive effort.” 

“There is no place in this gym for people stuck in their ways,” she continues.

Before the huddle breaks, one of the players recites a quote that is often credited to Vince Lombardi that Dudley included in the practice itinerary: “Winning means you’re willing to go longer, work harder, and give more than anyone else.” She shares a quote every day, based on how the team has played or what she wants them to take away from practice. 

Dudley is back in her office, not far from the court, when her daughter, Kendall, walks in to heat up her dinner. Kendall tells her mother that the Overtime women’s basketball Instagram account, with half a million followers, recently posted videos of Sidwell from the Visitation game and tagged her, Rice, and Donovan. “They call us the Big Three,” Kendall says. “Oh, that’s fun,” Dudley replies.

Dudley doesn’t want her team to get too high just yet. She has goals for Sidwell to win the Independent School League AA title, its first D.C. State Athletic Association title, and receive an invitation to the national high-school tournament.

“To me, we don’t really solidify who we are as a team until the end,” she says. “At the end of the season is when we can say, ‘Oh damn, we were pretty good.”