How the Sidwell Friends girls’ basketball team became No. 1 in the nation through humility, hard work, and joy.
The big game didn’t start off the way they’d hoped. DeSoto High School claimed the tip-off and sunk the first basket, all in front of a live crowd and a television audience. Local members of the Sidwell Friends alumni community braved the bracing 12-degree Minnesota weather to support the team in person, while fans of the Quakers near and far caught the nationally broadcast game from the warmth of their couches.
In January, the Sidwell Friends girls’ basketball team played in the 2022 Girls Basketball Invitational in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a national championship that aired live on ESPNU. With Coach Tamika Dudley at the helm, the Quakers clinched the spot in the final round after beating two other top-ranked teams, including the hometown favorite, Hopkins High School from Minnetonka, Minnesota. “We knew they were long and athletic, but we’re super athletic, too,” Sidwell Friends guard Kiki Rice ’22 told Minnesota’s Star Tribune of the Hopkins game. “We made a point of finishing in traffic and pushing in transition.” The Quakers caught the lead at halftime and never let it go, finishing with a 12-point victory.
The No. 2–ranked DeSoto High School out of Texas, however, would not go down so easily. But what happened that freezing night in Minnesota isn’t nearly as important as the journey to get there.
On any given evening you can find the members of the Sidwell Friends girls’ varsity basketball team on the court at Pearson Athletic Center on the Wisconsin Avenue campus. By the time they arrive for practice, the teammates have already been through a full day of classes, crammed in some homework (which they will have to return to later), and had a snack. “These kids have crazy schedules, and one of the challenges for me is to help them understand that they can manage this—the rigors of the classroom, the social life, and the team,” Dudley says. “And from the time I started at Sidwell Friends, it’s never been an issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 6 a.m. practice or a late-night one, or if we’re here on a Sunday. It can be done, but everybody’s got to buy in.”
On a recent Wednesday night in January, the players look exhausted. Yawns escape the busy teens as they file into the gym. But then, after a resounding whistle, practice starts, and the fatigue magically melts away. Suddenly, the girls are all in.
Part of the reason they are all in and work so hard is that last season didn’t exist: It was, like so much else, a casualty of the pandemic. Many of the girls are making up for lost time—even if it means running sprint drills in an 80-degree gym while wearing a mask. For students who are planning on playing college basketball, they lost an entire year of visibility on the court at a crucial point in their careers. “Now it’s almost like they’re taking two years and cramming it into one season so they can get everything out of it,” says Dudley, who joined the Sidwell Friends coaching staff in 2019. Whether or not they are planning on a college athletic career, the girls are now eager and grateful to just play, play, play. “Not having a season last year,” says Dudley, “makes them really appreciate what they have now.”
As Dudley and her staff run the players through drills and practice plays, there are inevitable mistakes. During one run, a player misses a route completely, leading to a wayward pass and a steal from one of the Sidwell Friends players on defense. “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope,” Dudley yells, beckoning the player to her. Dudley points out again where the player needs to go. Before running the play again, the entire team erupts in a quick round of applause. Applause for an error? “It’s a support thing,” Dudley says. “It says: ’Let’s get it back, let’s try again. You’ve got it this time.’”
Building connections with teammates and making them feel valued leads to a better dynamic off the court and translates to better team chemistry on the court.”
While wins and losses may be evidence of success, the team’s unparalleled motivation—to play, to excel, to lead—is more impressive than any record. (Though for the record, as of press time, the team has no losses!) Dudley leaves the team with a motivational quote at the end of practice to propel them into the next day, the next game, or the next drill. That sense of purpose is part of why Keith Levinthal, the David P. Pearson ’52 director of athletics, calls them “an easy team to root for.”
What they have now, says Dudley, is a team committed to the sport, to Sidwell Friends, and to one another. “This team has a commitment to sacrifice for a common goal,” she says. “They’ve done a really great job at making the necessary sacrifices to accomplish what we want to accomplish this season. And it’s not just our top players or our leading scorers—every kid on the team has bought in.”
The “top players” Dudley refers to are an impressive lot. ESPN’s top 10 women’s players in their respective class years include Kiki Rice ’22, Jadyn Donovan ’23, and Kendall Dudley ’24. If that last name sounds familiar, that’s because when Sidwell Friends hired Tamika Dudley, the School got a twofer: the coach’s tall, talented daughter, Kendall, joined the team, too.
As a senior, guard Rice—who has committed to play for UCLA in the fall—is currently the No. 2–ranked player in the nation and has racked up several major awards during her high school career, including being named the 2020 DC Gatorade Player of the Year, named to the 1st Team all- Metro by The Washington Post in 2020, named to the U16 National team in 2019, and named to the McDonald’s All- American team this year—the School’s first All-American. What’s more, Rice and Coach Dudley are both finalists for the prestigious Naismith Trophy—Rice for High School Player of the Year and Dudley for High School Coach of the Year.
That’s not Dudley’s only accolade. She is the National High School Basketball Coaches Association Wooden Legacy Coach of the Year, named for legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who led the UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA titles. (If you haven’t heard of him but are a fan of Ted Lasso, Wooden invented the “Pyramid of Success” that hangs in Coach Lasso’s office.) The award recognizes her commitment to education, longevity, character, service, and excellence.
“I’m thrilled that Tamika was recognized,” Levinthal says. “What she has achieved here in a short amount of time is nothing short of remarkable. Her vision, work ethic, and energy have not only been great for our girls’ basketball team, but our entire athletic program. We’re fortunate to have her here.” Dudley is more modest. “What the coaching staff does is about the kids,” she says. “It’s not about us, and it’s never been about us.” Similarly, while Dudley rightfully takes pride in the individual successes of some of her players, she is emphatic that basketball is a team sport, and her coaching reflects that. It’s not about stars or “the Big Three,” as the press has dubbed Rice, Donovan, and Dudley. For Coach Dudley, “It’s about the Big 18.”
“Not every kid is going to play in college,” she says. “My goal has always been to make sure that the kids who may never have that experience get a glimpse
of the next level. They understand the sacrifice, commitment, and perseverance it takes. They understand how to be a part of a team and contribute in different ways that are valuable to the common goal.” After all, even the girls who may not play much in official games are practicing with the team, making themselves and the others better, running through complicated plays, and helping to create the atmosphere in which the whole group can succeed. “We wouldn’t have a successful program if we didn’t have those kids,” Dudley says. “They play such an important role.”
Player Aviva Wright ’22 agrees. “Building connections with teammates and making them feel valued leads to a better dynamic off the court and translates to better team chemistry on the court,” she says. “By putting the team over the individual your success becomes more sustainable and guaranteed because one person doesn’t determine your wins and losses.” For her part, Dudley profoundly understands how special each player is—including Wright. “What Aviva does for this team is more valuable than any point, rebound, or steal,” says Dudley. “It will never show up in the stat book so many will never have the privilege to know or understand how special she is to this team’s success.”
LOVE OF THE GAME
The girls’ drive and teamwork are essential, but something else is also at play. Attend a practice and you can see the sacrifice, you can see the work, but you can also see joy—pure joy. During free-throw drills, every shot that goes in gets a fist bump. The players grab water for one another without being asked. Spurts of applause bubble up. There is no evidence of ego.
There’s joy off the court, too. The players are celebrities in the Sidwell Friends community. In February, when the team made a special trek to the Lower School campus, they were welcomed with cheers and signs from their young admirers. The combination pep rally, parade, and meet-and-greet was inspirational—especially for those children who may be on the team themselves in a few short years. “It was very exciting when they came because they’re kinda famous,” Emmi ’32 said about the event. “Kiki Rice signed my basketball.” And Camilla ’32 beamed as she showed off a couple of signatures on her newly autographed sneakers.
“It was such an amazing experience for both our girls and the little kids,” Dudley said later, remembering her players signing autographs and taking selfies with the littlest Quakers. “It was so cute and so moving, because my players recognize the impact they are able to have on young kids. My career started because someone inspired me, so it was great to see little kids being inspired.”
For some it was a full-circle moment. Just three years ago, Kendall Dudley, in her first year at Sidwell Friends, and Gianna Katsock ’24, teammates on the 8th grade basketball team, won a competition launched by the Nike Game Growers program, a nonprofit that gives 8th grade girls the tools and resources they need to increase their participation in local sports. The contest asked girls across the country to help Nike do just that. Dudley and Katsock’s winning idea was an app called “Game GrowHers,” to encourage younger girls to play basketball. They love the game, and they love bringing more girls into the game.
Back at the nationally televised championship game in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in January, the pressure was intense. As the top-ranked team, the Quakers were the ones to beat. And DeSoto was coming for them.
For much of the first half, DeSoto had Sidwell Friends on the run, often leading the Quakers by 10 to 12 points. At the buzzer, Sidwell was down by seven and a touch dejected. But after halftime, the Quakers rebounded with fire in their eyes. Jadyn Donovan scored—and scored and scored. Leah Harmon ’24 nailed a three-pointer. Then Khia Miller ’23 also grabbed a three. With less than two minutes to go, Donovan sped down the court and sunk a basket, leaving only a one-point deficit. At the almost one-minute mark, Miller sunk another three-pointer, and the momentum palpably shifted. The Quakers on the bench were losing their minds. DeSoto was forced to foul. Donovan nailed two free throws, Sidwell stole the ball, the time dwindled, and before you knew it, the score was Sidwell 60, DeSoto 55 as Rice dribbled down the last seconds of the game.
“I’m most proud of coming back from halftime,” Donovan told ESPN later that night. “I’m glad my teammates trusted me and gave me those extra passes.” All of Sidwell Friends is glad: Donovan sunk 25 points that night, the most of any player in the game.
“It isn’t easy being number one,” Levinthal says. “I am so proud of them. And as much as I appreciate their on-court success, the players are a humble and kind group who reflect the values of our athletic program and School.”
Of course, Dudley wants to win. Winning is the goal of the game, but it is not the point
of it—something she is always the first to call out. “It’s never been about wins and
losses—it’s been about the experience,” Dudley says. “That’s always something I keep in the forefront of my mind: What’s the next best thing we can do? How can I make this better? How can I make sure everyone has a great experience and feels valued? That’s how we really win.”
ESPN2 will broadcast the McDonald’s All-American game on March 29, 2022, at 6:30 p.m.
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