The Ballou Knights boys basketball team is lighting up the national high school hoops scene this holiday season, taking second place last week at the Mission Prep Christmas Classic in California, a premier nationwide tournament.
Led by senior Donte Thomas, the team’s top scorer, the Knights also advanced to the finals in a post-Christmas tournament in Arkansas.
With its championship-caliber play on a national stage, the team, tops in the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Eastern League with an 8-1 record, joins the Ballou Knights Marching Band as a point of pride for the Southeast Washington high school, located in one of the city’s more troubled communities.
The Mission Prep Classic, played in San Luis Obispo just before Christmas, is regarded as the top prep holiday basketball tournament in California and one of the best in the country. Previous tournament stars include Ty Lawson of the Denver Nuggets, Jrue Holiday of the Philadelphia 76ers and DeMar Derozan of the Toronto Raptors.
The Knights made their mark in the early rounds with a 69-66 win over Los Angeles’ Washington Prep, and staved off a comeback attempt by Pasadena High School to advance to the finals against nationally ranked Taft High School of Woodland Hills, Calif., where they lost 65-62.
Fourth-year coach Jenkins Dormu flew with his 11-player squad to California on Dec. 17 to compete in the holiday classic. The Knights flew home just in time for Christmas. On Dec. 26, they took a chartered bus to Little Rock, Ark., to compete in the Heaven’s Best Tournament, where they defeated Covington, of Memphis, Tenn., 56-52, on Wednesday.
They will play in the finals in that tournament Thursday night.
Mr. Dormu said he is challenging his team with a tough national schedule, as they defend their 2008-09 DCIAA title and seek to avenge last year’s loss in the City Title game to Catholic-school powerhouse DeMatha, ranked No. 16 in the country by USA Today.
“The kids have worked hard and are playing disciplined basketball,” Mr. Dormu said. “They have really jelled as a team.” He added that he and the Knights are anxious to get home to their families and loved ones.
Ballou showed promise from the start this year. On Dec. 5, in the D.C.-Baltimore Challenge, the Knights handled Lake Clifton, ranked No. 15 in the nation, 68-54.
This year’s starters include point guard and playmaker Zalmico Harmon; shooting guards Christian Leach, Eugene Watkins and Donte Thomas; and front-court players John Brown Jr. and Anthony Livingston. Big men Marquis Gentry and Antwan Pittman come off the bench and are joined by reserves Lamont Eatmon, Brandon Boykins and Marquez Henry.
The California trip cost $10,000, and was sponsored by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, council member Kwame R. Brown, Chartered Health Plan Inc., and the nonprofit youth outreach group Peaceoholics.
On Wednesday, Mr. Fenty applauded the team: “This season, the Ballou Knights men’s basketball team has surpassed its reputation as one of the best teams in the region, becoming a force to reckon with nationwide. I commend the Knights on their performance and thank them for making the District proud.”
Added Mr. Brown: “I couldnt be more proud of the Knights for representing D.C. in the championship game. Their talent, determination and perseverance are an inspiration to us all.”