By Daniel Christian
Outside of closed doors and a cemented room with dinged-up navy blue lockers and a messy whiteboard, more than 2000 sweaty and multicolored fans wait in crammed bleachers, standing room only. Some are wearing orange and blue, others blue and green, but there is an unquestionable energy to the place—a buzz, if you will, that permeates more than just a building sitting atop Jermantown Road. It’s the calm before the storm. Within 10 minutes, the place will be louder than most any regular season Washington Wizards game, and more spirited too.
Inside closed doors, however, coach Rico Reed has no problem with telling his Flint Hill team the severity of the moment. He knows that the result of the next two hours will impact more than just the landscape of the Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) for the rest of the season. He knows that until next year, this is his last opportunity to beat Potomac, but more importantly, his players’ last opportunity.
Across the hall, the Potomac School’s star player and Holy Cross commit Cullen Hamilton cracks jokes. Matt Carney tries to keep the mood light as well, but the meaning of the game is not lost on them, either. They know what’s at stake: bragging rights, conference championships, area dominance, and most importantly, school pride. That widespread energy exceeds far past the hands and feet of the students and parents behind the door; that energy is felt most by the players in their warm-ups, looking up at the ceiling in anticipation, ready for both the insulting chants and unabashed support.
“I felt like I wanted to crawl into a hole and just do nothing,” said Trevor Ogundepo, a senior on Flint Hill’s 2011-2012 varsity basketball team. “All year long I felt that the basketball gods were against us. That proved to be true for the Potomac game as well.”
Ogundepo came to school at 6:00 AM on the morning of every game day. He’d shoot jump shots, work on his ball handling, and shift his mindset into a certain calmness. That didn’t change on the morning of the Potomac game. He got to school early and went through his routine. Cullen Hamilton still told jokes. Matt Carney still chatted with his friends. The rituals didn’t change, but the atmosphere did.
Potomac, who had beaten Flint Hill by 18 points just 21 days earlier, picked up where they left off. They led by as many as 22 points, and it looked as if the Panthers were going to run away with another win, this time at Flint Hill’s annual Winterfest event. Hamilton, however, knew better. The game was far from over, and he saw the momentum slowly start to sway in Flint Hill’s favor long before it ever hit the crowd.
“They were definitely going to make a run,” Hamilton said. “It’s sacrilegious for those guys to quit. Coach Reed coached teams don’t do that. They came out in the second half and punched their way back to a lead.”
The Huskies had defied the odds and held a one-point advantage with about 9 seconds remaining in the game. Potomac had the ball out of bounds, and the ensuing play would be one of the most memorable in the history of the rivalry.
“I think we had a breakdown in responsibility,” said Reed, head coach of the Flint Hill varsity basketball team. “I can tell you exactly what happened, but I don’t want to go into great detail about it… I think because of the excitement associated with the contest and the moment, we had a couple of gentlemen lose sight of their responsibilities. The Potomac kid made an excellent pass and found a guy wide open. They deserved to win that game.”
“I was actually expecting Davon [Hill] to shoot it, not pass it to me” Carney said. “I was initially surprised when I caught the ball. I didn’t know how much time was on the clock, but I knew I had to shoot it as soon as I caught it. Thankfully, I was able to get the shot off in time and make it.”
Reed, still in disbelief at the sheer oscillatory nature of the game’s closing minutes, thought back to his other memorable moments coaching against Potomac. He recalled the 2008 MAC championship victory over the Panthers, which avenged the two previous losses that came in that very same season. He recalled Jeremy Glover’s 35-point explosion in the 2009 shootout, a victory that was just as sweet as the year before. But even after years of forging a program on the foundation of winning, he sees last year’s effort as something worthy of equal remembrance.
“Despite the fact that we lost,” he said, “it was one of my proudest moments as coach of the Flint Hill basketball team because of how hard our guys competed.”
Dennis Giuliani’s office sits adjacent to college counseling’s at Flint Hill School. His window is adorned with thank you cards and his wall with pictures. He came to Flint Hill in 1991 to coach basketball, but what started in 1992 would transcend anything that he or any other coach had done before.
“Part of it was the location of the schools,” Giuliani said on the origins of the rivalry. “We were a brand new school, and they felt that they were a more established school who should come over and beat us. That’s why the very first game was a very competitive game. It came down to the end and we won, and I think that really set the tone for the whole rivalry.”
That first ever game played between the schools, which was at George Mason in 1992, was packed with fans from both sides. After a few more competitive contests and a 1995 top-20 showdown, the rest became history.
In 1995, Flint Hill won 27 games and lost one. They won the MAC Championship and the Virginia State Championship, but to get there, they had to go through Potomac.
Potomac, according to Giuliani, was a top-20 team even if they weren’t ranked as such, and in order to keep their magical season alive, the Huskies would have to go into their rival’s territory and steal a victory. Jim Fitzpatrick, who was team captain of the Flint Hill varsity basketball team in 1995, led the charge in a rivalry defining 69-66 overtime victory.
“The Flint Hill-Potomac rivalry was relatively new in the early-to-mid 1990s, but it certainly did not lack the intensity, passion, and excitement that the it still has to this day,” said Fitzpatrick, who would go on to win MVP of the State Tournament later in 1995. “I remember being part of a standing-room-only, packed gymnasium over at the Potomac School when our team was ranked top-10 in the Washington Post. The crowd was electric, and with every possession in the game we could feel the intensity rising.
“Potomac had a very good team, but Flint Hill had a great team. Neither was willing to let the victory go until the final minutes of overtime. That game, much like all the rivalry games between these two schools, is never about one player or one play… Our team played with great toughness, and together we were able to walk away with a win in a very hostile environment.”
Potomac would not regain control of the rivalry until the early 2000s, when they began to hold an advantage over Flint Hill that would last through about 2007. Flint Hill maintained a steady ascendancy from then until 2012, when Potomac won both contests. For the first time in a long time, the direction of the rivalry is currently up in the air.
Both teams are saddled with new faces and new leaders, all anxious to prove their worth in the coming contests. Last year’s senior laden teams of Potomac and Flint Hill are no more. Potomac lost Hamilton, Carney, and Hill, three of their most important players from the last few seasons, and Flint Hill lost their core of Ogundepo, Mo Berchie, Andy Rehberger, Troy Thomas, Brian McDonald, and Daniel Giguere. Both teams are young and inexperienced, but both teams also have an opportunity to stake their claim as the leader of this rivalry.
“This group of kids is really looking forward to the first time that we get to play [Potomac] this year on…” Coach Reed glanced up at the calendar suspended from his wall. “February 2.”
Hamilton appreciates the rivalry because of its truth. Flint Hill doesn’t like Potomac and Potomac doesn’t like Flint Hill. It’s a mutually beneficial dislike though, one not rooted in hatred, but in competition, Hamilton explains:
“It’s such a great rivalry because it’s such a healthy rivalry. It’s all about the love of competing and the pride in your school… It’s pure.”
Carney and Reed, however, see the joint success of these two programs and know that these games are so important because the winner does not only attain bragging rights within the confines of the rivalry, but often something more tangible-- a championship.
“Whenever you are in a Potomac or a Flint Hill gym, that is where you can find a majority of the MAC Championship banners,” Carney said. “You cannot win [in this conference] without beating either Potomac or Flint Hill.”
“What we ended up having was a situation where you not only had stiff competition between rivals from alike schools, but also stiff competition between rivals who were successful, which meant that when we met twice a year or sometimes three times a year in basketball, the games meant something,” Reed said.
Reed looks at these games and also sees an impact far beyond that on the basketball court. He sees a game that means more to a community than anything else, one that often defines whether a school year, from an athletic perspective, is a success or failure.
“What happens [when we play Potomac] will have a direct impact over the next year on fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons who have either a direct tie to Flint Hill and Potomac, or an indirect tie to Flint Hill and Potomac. Many of our alums, they come back for one game—the Potomac game. Many of our former faculty members come back for one game—the Potomac game. It receives media coverage every year, and I think our guys understand that we have a responsibility to represent Flint Hill to the best of our ability on that given night.”
Carney, on the other hand, was too busy living in the moment of the rivalry to focus on that extraneous impact. He will remember his game-winning layup for the rest of his life, and it’s not because that layup beat any old team, it’s because that layup beat Flint Hill. That layup made him a YouTube legend at school, it caused teammates to dog-pile on top of him at center court, and it caused hundreds of people dressed in Husky blue and green to go home disappointed, while hundreds in blue and orange went home celebrating.
“It was truly an unforgettable feeling right after I made the basket at the buzzer,” he said “I could see some of the fans and my teammates chasing after me to celebrate, but I just kept running across the court out of excitement until I was finally caught and mobbed by a few of my friends at center court.”
Carney went on to add, “Not only did we win a game on a buzzer-beater, we beat Flint Hill on a buzzer-beater.”
Nevermind the crucial impact it had on the conference standings, not even Flint Hill cared about that. They wanted to beat Potomac, and Potomac wanted to beat them. That’s the way it will always be, according to Ogundepo:
“What makes the Flint Hill-Potomac rivalry so intense is the fact that we genuinely have a sense of disgust when that other institution beats us in anything—whether that be ping-pong, football, or a thumb war. The importance of beating Potomac in everything is paramount.”
Carney summed things up in a similar fashion: “Both Flint Hill and Potomac work extremely hard to prepare to win, and more importantly, to beat each other.”