Okonji does one thing well -- win

BALTIMORE -- He is surrounded by two McDonald's All Americans. He rarely stuffs the stat sheets but players like Godwin Okonji are program makers.

In three seasons, Okonji, the No. 26 center in the country, has been the do-it-all player on the court, with low maintenance off it for Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.).

Here's an eye-opening fact -- the Pilots are 96-3 with the 6-8, 220-pound Okonji on the floor in the last three years, including 32-2 this season. He helped Findlay Prep win its second NHSI championships with a win over Montverde on Saturday. Championship stock of this ilk is rare on the elite high school level.

"He's the greatest teammate you could ever have," Findlay Prep assistant Todd Simon said. "Godwin is a high major person, who is the backbone of a team. You learn to appreciate a player like him. He's just awesome."

Okonji often draws the toughest defensive assignments. He's help check top players like Michael Gilchrist, Dwight Powell (a Stanford recruit) and Quincy Miller.

"I like the challenge of playing the best; it brings out the best player in me," said Okonji, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and averaged 9 points and 9 rebounds this season for Findlay.

In Saturday's title game, he had 5 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Afterwards when the Pilots posed for photos, it was Okonji who clutched the championship trophy surrounded by his teammates.

"He has instant credibility with his teammates; he's been here since Day 1," Findlay head coach Michael Peck. "He's the winningest player in the program history and Godwin's personality and demeanor make him a winner."

In the semifinals, he added 4 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks during a 68-53 win over Mountain State Academy (Beckley, W.Va.). But here's where it get interesting, Findlay crashed the offensive boards rebounding 23 of their 29 missed shots, with Okonji accounting for 8 of them, or roughly one-third.

That's production, playing all 32 minutes.

"I'm the guy who helps his teammates get better; whatever it takes," said Okonji, who would like to study telecommunications in college.

So far, he's taken four visits -- Texas Christian, Texas Tech, Hawaii and New Mexico -- and the final one will occur later this month, with Marquette, Missouri, UCLA and Indiana involved.

Before his visit, Okonji will play in the Jack Jones Shootout, a senior all-star game on April 10 in Memphis.

"He's our unsung warrior," Simon said.

Nothing to do but watch
Dante Holmes sat quietly in the last row of the arena Saturday. His senior year at St. Frances Academy (Baltimore) finished a few weeks ago but wanted to catch a glimpse of the nation's elite team.

"It's tough sitting here; I want to be playing," he said.

Holmes could only wonder "what if."

A year ago, St. Frances was playing in the inaugural ESPN RISE National High School Invitational and 6-foot-3 Holmes was the high-energy swingman that sparked the offense.

This year the Archdiocese of Baltimore put the kibosh on a return trip when the tournament was booked during three days of Holy Week. The same could be said for St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.), who weren't allowed a return trip this time.

Saturday he watched as Findlay Prep of Henderson, Nev. won the NHSI trophy at Coppin State's Physical Education Complex.

"We had a good year; played against nationally ranked teams like St. Benedict's and Milton (Alpharetta, Ga.) at the City of Palms (Classic). Those were close games. I really think we could match up against these big programs," Holmes said.

"It would have been nice to play Findlay Prep or Oak Hill Academy; those the top two teams every year."

Holmes, a second team All-Baltimore selection, helped the Panthers claim the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association Conference A crown. He surpassed 1,200 career points, averaging 15 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.

This is spring break for area schools. That's good news for Holmes who must sift through the stack of college offers. He's already vetted by the NCAA Clearinghouse, so what will it be?

"I need to get started on this, right?" he said.

Well, Alabama-Birmingham has shown the most attention and is pressing for a visit. Rice and Houston are serious players while programs such as George Mason, Delaware State, Marquette, St. Bonaventure and Loyola (Md.) are involved.

UAB piques his interest the most because of their up-tempo style.

"I like to get up and down the floor in transition and press and trap on defense," Holmes said. "I'll really do whatever it takes to win or help my team."

St. Frances coach Mark Karcher, a former standout at Temple, feels "whoever gets Dante will get a hard worker, a complete player."

Karcher, who completed his second year at his alma mater, has influenced Holmes' game.

"He's getting me ready for college," Holmes said. "Coach's workouts are hard. We'd run hills in 90 degree weather; I'm definitely in great condition and beginning to shoot the ball more consistent."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today.