Inside New Hope's whirlwind journey from birth to champion
This victory wasn't silent, not even inside a chariot for champions.
Jada Walker, the star sophomore point guard at New Hope (Landover, Maryland), had plenty of room to stretch her weary 5-foot-6 frame this past Saturday afternoon on her team's luxury charter bus called "Chariots For Hire."
She needed some shut-eye. Her team had just played two emotional games in the past 24 hours, the final two victories in a season that included 40 wins and spanned some 12,000 miles with stops in cities from New York to Dallas to Phoenix.
But it's hard to sleep when you've just been named MVP of the GEICO High School Nationals. It's difficult to doze when you have just led your team to a 45-34 win over perennial powerhouse St. John's (Washington, D.C.). And it's nearly impossible to chase dreams when you've already shut down the Gatorade National Player of the Year, Azzi Fudd, in front of a national TV audience on ESPN2.
"My phone kept buzzing," Walker said. "I was still in shock that we had just won a national championship against a top team and the top player."
Walker, who had nine points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, was part of a stellar defensive effort that held Fudd to 1-for-11 shooting in the first half and held the entire St. John's team to two points in the fourth quarter.
As the final seconds ticked off, Walker cried on the shoulder of New Hope assistant coach Jon Walker, who is also her father.
"It was really emotional," Walker said. "No one expected our team to be where we were except us. Before the tournament, a lot of people asked us, 'Where's New Hope?'
"It didn't make us mad. We just said, 'They will know who we are after this tournament because we will be No. 1.'"
Sam Caldwell has been here before. The New Hope Academy head coach had led Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Maryland) to national championships in 2012 and 2014. He was dismissed -- he says he still doesn't know why -- after the 2016-17 season.
Undaunted, Caldwell landed at New Hope, an independent and international private school in Landover, Maryland, that didn't even have a basketball program at the time. It still doesn't have a gym.
The New Hope tradition is Caldwell's to build, and the coach convinced talent near and far to get in on the ground floor.
He started with Jennifer Ezeh, the No. 81 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2019 class, who followed him from Riverdale Baptist.
Agnes Paul, who along with Ezeh is from Nigeria, arrived at New Hope next. Both players are 6-2 forwards, and Caldwell and his associate head coach, Michelle Watts, are their legal guardians. Ezeh lives with Watts, and Paul lives with Caldwell.
Those two players were part of a brilliant New Hope senior class this season that orchestrated a 40-3 record. Five of those seniors are Division I recruits: Ezeh (Duke), Kylie Kornegay-Lucas (Virginia), Demi Washington (Vanderbilt), Dainajoy "DJ" McFarlane (Tennessee Tech) and Paul (Delaware).
The turnaround was both dramatic and swift. Caldwell went 14-15 in his first season at New Hope as three of his players -- including Ezeh -- sat out the year due to ACL knee injuries.
Then, prior to this season, Kornegay-Lucas, Washington, McFarlane, Walker and junior shooting guard Delicia Pinnick joined the New Hope roster, and the team ascended up the rankings, although not quickly enough to suit Caldwell.
"A lot of the rankings this season had us pretty low -- in the teens," Caldwell said. "We used it as motivation. We felt we were the best team in the country. We had to go out and prove it."
Rebounding from loss
New Hope's third and final loss of the season was a 61-60 overtime defeat to Miami Country Day (Florida) at the Nike Tournament of Champions on Dec. 21 in Arizona.
In that game, a New Hope turnover led to Miami Country Day's four-point play by Maria Alvarez with 3.6 seconds left, giving the Spartans a 61-60 lead that held up.
It was a crushing defeat, but New Hope rattled off 25 straight wins to end its championship season. Along the way, New Hope knocked off Riverdale Baptist 64-57 in overtime on Feb. 22 in the NACA title game in Dayton, Tennessee.
"God has a sense of humor," Caldwell said when asked about beating his former school.
New Hope also got revenge on Miami Country Day, which was ranked No. 1 heading into the season-ending tournament. A focus on defense helped New Hope hand Miami Country Day a 60-52 loss in the GEICO semifinals this past Friday.
Alvarez, who had tormented New Hope in December, was hit with three fouls in the first period and was taken off her game.
"We couldn't allow [Alvarez] to come off screens into her shooting pocket," Caldwell said. "When we first played her, we didn't know she was that dynamic a player. The kid was shooting from downtown.
"This time, we put a plan together to blow up those screens. [Kornegay-Lucas] is one of the best on-ball defenders I've seen. We did a lot of double-teaming, and we also shaded our 2-3 zone her way.
"When we had the ball, we wanted our bigger guards like Kylie and Demi to go right at her. We wanted [Alvarez] to play both ends."
The plan worked. Alvarez didn't score until the fourth quarter, and New Hope was led by Walker's 14 points. Kornegay-Lucas was a menace with 12 points, seven rebounds, five steals and five assists, and Ezeh (12) and Washington (10) also scored in double figures.
"Maria's foul trouble changed everything," Miami Country Day coach Ochiel Swaby said. "All credit to New Hope. They were physical. They took the game to us, and we didn't respond."
Twenty-four hours after beating top-ranked Miami Country Day, New Hope defeated No. 2 St. John's for the title.
On the four-hour bus ride back home to Maryland -- on the Chariot For Hire -- Caldwell took to the microphone and freestyled from the Ice Cube discography.
So much for Walker's sleep.
"Today was a good day," Caldwell rapped. "A good day for New Hope."