As this ‘open gym tour’ continues for AAU hoops, it feels like I’ve spent most of my time up in Northern Virginia (NOVA) thus far; an area containing many talented programs. I found myself back in Manassas, VA on Tuesday evening to swing by the ladies 17u squad of Higher Level Sports. Their 90-minute practice once again displayed traits of NOVA basketball competition that I’ve noticed in other teams within the area: hard-nosed, energetic, confident and purely passionate. In my eyes, Higher Level’s made their mark as one of the area’s renowned organizations and continue to turn heads by their yearly development. The girls’ 17u group has a roster full of standouts across the region but I honestly feel other aspects impress in an equal manner to skills/ability.
Head Coach: Ant Brown
Cleaning Things Up
Having been a Twitter follower of Higher Level head coach Ant Brown for several years now, I’ve definitely appreciated his advanced way of thinking the game. This notion led to expectations that he’d coach his girls up with an aim of preparing them for scenarios that can potentially develop both this spring/summer and at the next level. The practice opened up with a big emphasis on perfecting defense and the offense making clean passes in a ‘shell drill.’ A commonly used drill with many useful teachings, Coach Brown showed how strongly he values small details, as he stated “they will determine upcoming wins or losses for us.” I’m sure most of us basketball folks can relate. The young ladies worked hard on defense to get prepared for different situations, such as pin downs and dribble-handoffs before transitioning into a few minutes of live play. Afterwards, they spent a chunk of time running through sets of their offense before ending with a 20-minute scrimmage.
A Lot to Like
Oh yes, I absolutely recommend to check this team out. Like I touched upon earlier, the majority of their players finished up stellar seasons on their respective high school teams, but I see even more areas to be optimistic about. For starters, as a whole, Higher Level’s fairly young. Only four 2020 prospects make up this 17u team, while four current sophomores and three freshmen round out the roster. Still, the way they practiced on Tuesday night could make one think every player had entered the upperclassmen stage. I don’t see youth becoming an issue, but actually as one of, if not, their strongest aspect moving forward well after this summer concludes. In addition, I noted the team as balanced with eleven players who mainly play on the perimeter. About four of them are listed as a forward with inside ability. However, I still feel those particular four have a chance to show outside ability as well, especially as this travel season progresses. Defensively, the group played well during their practice; making it tough for each other to score. Their communication on that end looked solid with room to grow even stronger.
Oh, and I must throw it out there that Higher Level gets it done in the classroom too. Coach Brown’s group currently carries a team GPA of 3.48, with six out of the 11 players maintaining a 3.3 or greater. The entire program seems to stress high academics and has done a great job of keeping their members held accountable. One won’t find him or herself anywhere at the next level if those grades aren’t taken seriously.
Where Can You Find Them?
After competing in Ellicott City, MD for the ‘Bump City Shootout Classic’ about three weeks ago (4/5 – 4/7), Higher Level hits the road again today (4/25) for a trip down South toward Raleigh, NC. They’ll partake in the ‘Deep South Classic’ and the rest of their schedule follows:
- May 17 – 19: ‘LBI Carolina Jam Fest’ in Charlotte, NC
- May 24 – 26: ‘USBA Virginia State Championship’ in Richmond, VA
- June 29: Towson University Team Camp in Towson, MD
- July 10 – 13: ‘Battle in the Boro’ tournament in Louisville, KY
- July 20 – 23: ‘USJN National Championship’ in Oxon Hill, MD
- July 23 – 25: ‘NEB National Championship’ in Atlanta, GA
Meet the Team
Amani Bonchu-Stokes ‘22 – Stonewall Jackson HS: Taking on a big role as a very young point guard, Bonchu-Stokes has a promise that’s just as strong compared to anybody else I saw in the gym. Only a freshman, she already handles the ball well, plays with patience, and has good size at that position. She made several nice attempts at the rim during the scrimmage later in practice; attacking with either hand. It seems like Bonchu-Stokes is working on adding in that pull-up jumper to her arsenal as a reliable go-to weapon. As I’ve said time and time again, point guards with that scoring move in their game become that much more dangerous.
Jenna Grey ’21 – Colonial Forge HS: Grey has a smooth, effortless shooting release that should make her emerge as one of Higher Level’s top shooting threats. She can spot up for looks around the three-point line and get her shot off quickly, whether one has a chance to contest it or not. The sophomore also runs the floor well to get open for transition points. When I saw Grey play in the regular season for Colonial Forge, I also can recall her creating turnovers by the opposing team from taking charges. Her shooting prowess, IQ, and hustle should all prove highly valuable. The Stafford, VA native landed an honorable mention nod on ‘The Free Lance-Star’ newspaper’s 2019 All-Area team.
Kennedy Fuller ’21 – Colgan HS: Another young point guard on the roster, Fuller’s one who can make plays in many different types of ways. She’s a quick threat with the ball in her hands, who sets up her teammates, gets in the lane for floaters, knocks down perimeter shots, rebounds well for a guard, and shows a defensive focus. Her versatility on the floor and way of playing the game goes beyond her age already and serves as two of her best traits, in my opinion. Fuller had a great season in the Colgan Sharks’ backcourt, earning All-Cardinal District first team honors, and should be blowing up quite soon on the radar of college coaches. She looks on the verge of becoming a true combo guard.
Candasia Hyslop ’20 – Brooke Point HS: Hyslop had one of the best showings in Higher Level’s Tuesday practice; displaying an ‘inside and out’ type of game. Her instincts off of the ball first caught my eye, as she picked off several steals for finishes in the team scrimmage. She also looked very good in making aggressive drives to the rim, being able to face-up with the ball and use a burst of speed to attack in a physical manner. This motor also leads to a mindset of constantly attacking the offensive glass, where she can put up even more points on the board. Listed as both a wing and forward on the roster, I’m sure Hyslop will become a handful for opponents from anywhere on the floor. Above all else, she sure does have that experience; being a three-year high school starter.
Sierra Mulkey ’21 – Potomac HS (VA): Standing out as the most vocal player during Tuesday evening, the lefty Mulkey brings a good active presence on both ends. She gives strong effort consistently, finishes well under the rim, and snags rebounds. When facing up with the ball in the short corner, the 5’10” forward also showed comfort in putting the ball on the floor a few times for very quick drives. Right now, I feel Mulkey contains one of, if not, the highest motor on the roster. Her enthusiasm should play a large part on the team as a spark plug who competes and talks nonstop on the floor.
Naja Perryman ’22 – Colgan HS: The freshman showed a nice form and touch on her jump shot, which should carry her some of the most offensively. Perryman already impresses in the underrated area of moving without the ball, as I’m sure her Higher Level teammates will have no issues in locating her for open opportunities. She seems to still be working on her handle and all-around confidence offensively, but there’s good potential in the young guard. That notable wingspan of hers could definitely result in the Colgan Shark becoming a useful defender in the future.
Peyton Ray ’22 – Colgan HS: Being both a high school classmate and teammate of Perryman, Ray has a similar game as a two-guard who can shoot the rock. In all, she had the best shooting day during my visit; knocking down shots from all over the perimeter. I liked how she didn’t always just settle for the trey ball either, but found open spots along the midrange area of the floor. I also noticed how well she used a shot fake, getting defenders to bite before putting it on the floor. Continuing development in her handle will make her more of a threat in attacking the rim/separating from opponents. Defensively, Ray may shine on that end too… don’t be surprised to see her turn into a valuable ‘3&D’ product.
Josie Rodas ’20 – Evangel Christian: Acknowledged as one of the top snipers in the NOVA region, everyone in the gym made sure to know where the 5’5” guard was on the floor. Rodas can flat-out shoot it from anywhere, whether it involves her dribbling down the floor for deep-range pull-ups or moving around to get open. She has an ultra-quick trigger and can release it in the blink of an eye if defenders start to slack. More recently, area members noticed her sharpshooting when she took home the 2019 girls’ ‘Inside NOVA Hoops Fest’ three-point title late last month. I think Rodas has the chance to also show those in attendance this summer that she’s a good passer as well; one of the more underrated parts of her game.
Madison Sarver ’21 – Riverbend HS: The tallest player for Higher Level, at 6’0,” Sarver gives her team one of their most reliable post players. She establishes position for soft hook shots and should contribute heavily on the rebounding end. Her touch around the rim already looks good and will only continue as she gets more looks in the paint. Defensively, I also see the Fredericksburg, VA resident contesting shots at a high rate with her length and imposing presence. Displaying a natural way of stepping out to the short corner for jumpers will suit her nicely also, as coaches always like to see that trait in a forward.
Jordyn Strange ’20 – Christ Chapel Academy: Strange plays with some good activity on the floor and should provide great effort for Higher Level. She had a knack for coming up with winning plays during Tuesday’s scrimmage and can make a defensive impact with her athletic tools. Boosting up her scoring skills to equate with her hustle play will serve as the next step in the 5’5” guard’s final travel season. Strange also maintains the highest GPA on the team, at a 4.1 clip.
Stephanie Taylor ’20 – Osbourn HS: Taylor rounds out the 2020 class and, similar to Sarver, will play as a forward who can produce on both sides of the floor. The lefty plays unselfish, sets good screens, rebounds/finishes, and can shoot short jumpers a bit. I think ‘high-low’ scenarios of Taylor and Mulkey or Taylor and Sarver could work out nicely with Taylor acting as the passer. She has good veteran leadership with a calm demeanor that can most likely settle things down if the team becomes frantic in a certain situation.
Good luck to the young ladies and Coach Brown this weekend in their trip to Raleigh, NC!