Ashburn, Va. — The jeer came from a heckler in the Albemarle student section.
“Hey #4! You suck!”
The #4 in question, Potomac Falls senior small forward Landon Hawes, turned around as one of his teammates took a free throw and nodded his head in acknowledgement.
He then turned his attention back to the game and promptly scored 30 points, dominating en route to his team’s VHSL 5A State quarterfinal victory over Albemarle, 69-47.
“I heard that a little bit,” Hawes said. “I just looked up and thought, ‘I suck? All right, let’s turn it up. I’m gonna show him that I don’t suck.’ Then I gave him a 30-ball, and he’s going home.”
Hawes – who was named the VHSL Region 5C Player of the Year – was spectacular throughout the night, shooting 11-of-21 on the night, adding 7 points from the free-throw stripe. But he wasn’t alone in the effort. Potomac Falls senior forward Jalen Coker was an absolute force inside, scoring 23 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field, and adding one high-flying block.
In a second quarter that ended up deciding the game, Coker rose up to swat an Albemarle shot attempt far out of bounds.
“I saw him go for the floater, and I should have just grabbed it out the air,” Coker said. “But I decided to block it out of bounds, just for a little effect.”
The block was part of a larger defensive effort for the Panthers in the second quarter, as they held the Patriots to a mere 2 points while scoring 18 themselves, taking an 11-11 tie at the end of the first quarter and turning it into a commanding 29-13 halftime lead.
It was an extremely rough first few minutes of the game for the Panthers, who had multiple turnovers, falling down 6-0 early.
“We had a little bit of nerves,” Hawes said. “I know that we didn’t want to lose so I feel like guys were a little bit scared. Even I was a little timid.”
Potomac Falls head coach Jeff Hawes felt they were lucky to get out of the first quarter tied.
“I thought we played into their hands a little bit in the first quarter. We played a little slow. We weren’t attacking, and we were a little tentative,” Coach Hawes said. “I thought we were very lucky to get out that first quarter 11-all and that’s what I told the team. Then I said ‘let’s go out there and try to speed this thing up,’ and obviously, we had a great second quarter and got control of the game.”
With the win, Potomac Falls moves themself into rarified air. There’s a sense of history felt throughout the program, seen nowhere more than inside their home locker room, one filled with newspaper clippings from all the past successes of the team. Coach Hawes brought a bit of the past back into the program, as in the postgame locker room celebration were Panther alums Matt Galloway, Greg Graves, Lukas Mihailovich, Pete Simoneau, and Steven Wilson.
“It’s something that wasn’t built in a day, but it’s something we got that we really treasure and take pride in year in, year out, and all the guys come back. We feed off that; we live off that,” Coach Hawes said. “We’re proud of who we are. It’s not just a basketball team. It’s a program. It’s a family. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Earlier this year, it didn’t look like the Panthers were going to live up to the gaudy names in their past. They were middling, and even though their record wasn’t bad, their play wasn’t up to the Potomac Falls standard. Things came to a head in the middle of January, when they lost back-to-back games against Freedom and Rock Ridge, the latter in Ashburn.
“We walked out of this place, as a bunch of individuals that didn’t really appreciate each other and Panther basketball,” Coach Hawes said.
The next day, he brought everyone in, and instead of hosting a brutal practice, had them watch Hoosiers with a large assortment of snacks. Tears were shed amid emotional talks, and according to Coach Hawes himself, the next day’s practice was the best the team had all year.
“Everyone was expecting for the next day to be just death and him to run us to death and kill us, but he tells us to meet him in the classroom, and I think that really just calmed us down and made us realize that we need to just calm down and enjoy this,” Landon Hawes said. “I feel we weren’t having fun and that’s what we are keying on now, just going out there and having fun because tonight was a lot of fun.”
That day changed the Panthers, for better.
“I just feel like we’re more positive. I feel like before when we were in our little slump and earlier in the season, we were kind of negative,” Coker said. “We were thinking we had to do everything, but now, I feel like we got our flow back, our vibe, and we’re kind of just letting the game come to us.”
Potomac Falls doesn’t shy away from expectations, it embraces them. This is the most successful program of the last decade-plus in Loudoun County, and they’ll have a chance to add to those aforementioned newspaper clippings as the last remaining boys basketball team representing the community in 2020.
The Panthers’ season will continue when they travel to Norfolk State for a VHSL 5A State semifinal against Green Run on March 10.
“We’re excited to be there,” Coach Hawes said, “But we’re not satisfied.”