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Coach Sam Potolicchio (COL ’04)

Few expected the Jelleff Hoyas to even make Sunday’s game competitive. They were outmanned in a big way: missing two of their starters and up against a team a year older – and a year bigger – than they were. Middle schoolers playing in a high schoolers’ league. But with under two minutes remaining in the second half, the Hoyas’ Jamelle Christian drained a perfect three – at this level of play, a rarity in its own right – tying the score at 28 and bringing forth a deafening roar from one end of the gymnasium at the Jelleff Boys and Girls Club at S Street and Wisconsin Avenue. By the time the final few seconds of regulation had ticked off the clock, the Hoyas had forced the Jelleff Hawks into overtime for a chance to pull off an improbable comeback. Sam Potolicchio (COL ’04, GRD ’11) and his young Hoya squad had been here before. But in their last match-up, back in December, the Hoyas had been playing at full force and just barely squeaked past the Hawks, 29-28. Huddled on the sideline with his players, Potolicchio tried to fire up enough passion in his team to beat the odds. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we always find a way,” he told them. But this time, the Hoyas just couldn’t put it together against their elder opponents. A late breakaway by the Hawks led to a slightly lopsided final score of 37-30, and the Hoyas walked off the court feeling a sting of defeat that was previously unknown to Potolicchio’s team, the reigning champions in the Jelleff league. Potolicchio – whose level of intensity on the sideline stayed feverish through the final buzzer – had as many explanations after the rare loss as he had reasons to hope before: the missing starters, a big kid with an injury, and did you see those refs? Still, he emphasized above all else that the Hoyas haven’t lost their No.1 seeding, and certainly not their unflagging determination to win the league championship playing in a division above their age. From Player to Coach Among the teams at Jelleff, Potolicchio’s Hoyas have always been something of an outlier. They didn’t come together on their own; they came together because Potolicchio went out and found them. The resulting diversity among the players’ backgrounds cuts several different ways: black and white, prep school and public school, rising college recruits and kids for whom basketball is just their second sport. Whatever their differences before, however, Potolicchio’s players found something in common on the team, something that led them to an astounding level of success. Last year, the Hoyas went undefeated and won the championship game by 53 points in a contest so one-sided that the opposing team’s coach broke into the Hoyas’ huddle and heatedly demanded that they stop trying, Potolicchio said. This year, to level the playing field, the club moved the Hoyas up one division. Now, Potolicchio’s eighth-grade players compete against ninth-grade teams, but with familiar results: The Hoyas’ winning streak continued unabated until Sunday’s loss. “You can see the results on the court,” Potolicchio said of his team’s play on Sunday. “They just refused to lose.” Potolicchio’s time at Jelleff dates back to when he was around 12 years old and played in the league on a team coached by two Georgetown Law students. That early play, which Potolicchio calls one of the best experiences of his childhood, inspired him to form his own team when he came to Georgetown as an undergraduate. After returning to the Hilltop to study for a PhD in American government, Potolicchio contacted one of his former players, who helped him put together a brand-new squad. With five players from the Landon School in Bethesda, Md., and five from public and charter schools in the area, Potolicchio bestowed the Hoya name on his team, and they took to the court. From his earliest days as coach, Potolicchio has brought gut-busting enthusiasm to a league that is already quite competitive for recreational basketball. A bit of an anomaly as a student coach (most of teams are coached by one of the players’ fathers), Potolicchio assembled a high-profile cadre of assistants from among his best college buddies, including former Hoya captain Courtland Freeman (COL ’03) and Chris Paulus (MSB ’07), a former linebacker on the Georgetown football team. The move from collegiate athletics to middle- and high-school basketball hasn’t dulled the competitive spirit among Potolicchio’s coaching staff. They take games seriously, dutifully recording stats after each game and sending out press releases before each game and recaps afterwards to a group of their most devoted followers. These are filled with some often-brutal trash talking: One release poked fun at a member of the upcoming opponent for repeating his freshman year in high school. The team’s high profile has even attracted a small following on Georgetown’s campus. A Facebook group dedicated to the Hoyas sprung up in the wake of their successful run at the Jelleff title last year. For the players, all the success comes back to Potolicchio. “His personality really shows when he’s coaching,” said Jahvon Smith, a 13-year-old member of the Hoya squad who goes to Washington Latin charter school. “He’s just having fun.” Beyond coaching, however, Potolicchio works throughout the week to mentor his team. He drives them to games, offers them tutoring and advises the students and parents as they look toward graduating from middle school and exploring different options for high school. He said he talks to parents several times a week. His ideal role, Potolicchio said, is a “bruncle” – that’s brother and uncle – and so he also likes to just hang out with the kids. He brings them to the Tombs and goes to the “other” Hoya games at Verizon Center with them (all the kids are fans, save one University of North Carolina holdout, Potolicchio said). “He’s really dedicated, on and off the court,” said Addison Sarter, a 14-year-old Hoya who goes to Landon. Fr. Raymond Kemp, a senior research fellow in the Woodstock Theological Center who has known Potolicchio since teaching him as an undergraduate, regularly attends the Hoyas’ games, and said he wrote a letter of recommendation for one of the players applying to a preparatory school. For now, though, Potolicchio remains focused on his most important task of retaining the league title in more formidable waters. Perhaps predictably, he said that his team has a great shot at the championship. Closing Jelleff The tradition of the Jelleff basketball league extends far longer past Potolicchio’s experience. Bob Stowers, who runs Jelleff, said the program dates back to the 1980s, and that 850 kids are currently involved. But a plan in the works since last spring could mean the end of the Jelleff program. In April 2007, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington said that it would seek development proposals for the Jelleff site, citing financial concerns. The following month, Jelleff’s board of directors voted unanimously in opposition to the plan, but the proposal remains under consideration. Stowers noted that the Jelleff branch tends to attract a more diverse clientele than most Boys and Girls Club branches, with members from all over the city and surrounding metropolitan area. Many of the clients, he said, attend schools around the Jelleff branch. Jelleff is the only one of the BGCGW’s branches that makes money, according to the Washington Post. Stowers declined to discuss details of the sale, citing pressure from the BGCGW headquarters. Corrine Torres, a spokesperson for the club, could not be reached for comment. Kemp said that the possibility of the club closing was devastating to a broader effort to integrate different communities within the city. “What Jelleff does, what the Boys and Girls Clubs do in the bigger scheme of things, is [they] really do give people a chance to build community,” Kemp said. Bringing People Together “Set a pick! Set a pick!” Thursday night is only practice night at Jelleff, but the way Jahvon Smith’s father, John Smith, is getting into the action, the round of three-on-three he’s watching might as well be the title game. Potolicchio’s coaching and guidance, Smith said, have had a powerful influence in his son’s life, and in the lives of all his teammates. “They all mesh together,” he said of the team. “I think the character of the kids is what really makes the difference.” Potolicchio’s ultimate aim as coach is to win ballgames. But beneath his competitive drive, he said, he sees his team as a way to accomplish a different objective: bringing different groups of people together. That cause has motivated Potolicchio throughout most of his life. After graduating from Georgetown in three years, he received a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, where he studied ways to integrate the teaching of faith into public schools. Kemp noticed Potolicchio’s passion early on, starting while he was taking his course as an undergraduate. Even though Potolicchio attended Landon and Georgetown, Kemp said, growing up in Washington, D.C., gave him a unique understanding of the city’s racial divides. “Sam’s always been interested in the other side of the tracks, the other side of the road,” Kemp said. Kemp, another lifelong D.C. resident who has been a pastor at two different African American churches, said that he is also passionate about bringing different people together. “These kids now are best friends with each other,” Potolicchio said. “You’d never think that would happen.” For now, the Hoyas’ focus is, like any disciplined team’s, not on integration or neighborhood politics, but just the next game. “Sam kind of inserts himself into your brain and your consciousness, and whether you want to or not, you kind of end up cheerleading,” Kemp said. “I’m hoping for the best for this team.”

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