Chantilly coach Jim Smith was a relative unknown when he took over the reeling McLean High School boys basketball team back in 1989. Before Smith's arrival, McLean had not qualified for the Northern Region tournament in 18 years and had suffered through a winless season the year before. With Smith at the wheel, the Highlanders qualified for the region tournament for the next three years.
But even now, Smith knows that he can't take all the credit for that run. He shares that credit with Nate Friends — a 1991 graduate who went on to win four NCAA soccer titles while playing soccer at the University of Virginia.
"I got the job at McLean," remembered Smith, who has since moved on to coaching at Chantilly. "They had really struggled the year before. I was at open gym. I'm watching these kids play and suddenly I see Nate and I'm like 'who is that kid? He was different than the other kids."
The youngster, who sat out his freshman year because of ineligibility due to his move from New Jersey, "had sort of a double career," said Friends, who led the Highlanders soccer team to a 16-1-3 regional finals appearance as a forward his senior year.
"He brought a new attitude to the school," said Friends of Smith.
Friends brought the talent.
"The kid could not shoot the ball outside of 15 feet," laughed Smith. "He was left-handed and he could not go right. Everybody would play off him and play his left hand and he would still beat them."
Friends, a quick and explosive guard, captained a team of undersized guards through a region of talent-laden powerhouse programs and into the regional quarterfinals in his junior and senior basketball seasons. "We barely had guys over 6'2, but we played smart," said Friends. "We had good athletes and hard workers and Coach Smith got the best out of us. We didn't overachieve but we didn't underachieve."
AFTER HELPING Mclean basketball to 12-12 and 10-13 records in his first two seasons, Friends and a bevy of guards, including starters John Zavala, Key Reed, Brent Bombusch and Jeff Hao, pushed through a region of star-studded teams and into the 1991 regional quarterfinals. McLean, a No. 4 seed in the Great Falls District tournament, had advanced past No. 5 seeded Herndon and No. 1 seeded Madison, 61-59, to mark the first time that a McLean boys basketball team had reached the Great Falls District tournament finals since 1984. McLean, in the finals, lost a 58-50 decision to Great Falls District champion Chantilly.
"All the seniors, we were laughing-stocks three years before," remembered Rusty Payne — a senior guard for the 1991 squad who hit key free-throws to help the Highlanders advance past Fairfax, 67-66, in the first round of regionals. "I was on the floor for the last two biggest wins that the school had in years."
Smith remembered the situation that forced Payne to the free-throw line for the biggest win in McLean's hoops history — shots Payne nailed in place of an injured Friends.
"[Nate's] senior year, we are playing Fairfax in the regional tournament," said Smith. "We tied it up and had possession in the last 20 seconds. [Nate] got fouled at the buzzer and [Fairfax's Billy] Pulsipher wiped him out. They had to peal Nate off the floor."
Payne hit 1-of-2 free-throws for the victory to help the Highlanders to the one-point victory over Fairfax. McLean finished the season with a 14-11 record after losing in the next round of the regional tournament.
"That was the thing about Nate," said Smith. "He didn’t shy away from the big moment. He wanted the ball in those situations."
FRIENDS DIDN'T just draw fouls on the basketball court. He became a target on the soccer field as a senior when McLean coach Ted Pease moved him from defense to the forward position.
"I had talked to Bruce Arena and he wasn't interested," said Pease, who pleaded with eventual World Cup coach Bruce Arena — then the head coach of the UVA soccer team — to come and watch his star player. Friends flourished in the offensive role and earned MVP honors at McLean.
The game Arena came to watch was the region final against J.E.B Stuart — a game that Friends was battered 18 times by the opposition.
According to Pease, even though Friends was fouled 18 times, he still dominated the game and still managed to score to send the 1-1 game to penalty kicks. Stuart won and advanced to the state tournament ending Friends senior year at 16-1-3, but "Bruce called me that night and said he really wanted Nate," said Pease.
Friends, who scored on a header in the loss to Stuart, used the experience to prepare him for what to expect in college.
"It was frustrating and it really helped me for college," said Friends, who turned his 6-foot 165-pound body into a 6-foot 2-inch 195-pound frame by the time he was a sophomore at UVA. "That game led me to get stronger. It was a good way of learning how to deal with defense," said Friends.
Friends went on to help UVA to four NCAA soccer titles. He scored the game-winning goal in the NCAA championship game in 1993 and scored both goals against South Carolina in the 1994 title game en route to being named the Final Four MVP. He was also an All-American in 1994 before going to the University of Wisconsin law school. He played briefly for the semi-professional Long Island Rough Riders.
He is currently a Senior Corporate Attorney at AOL and lives with his wife Pam and daughter Alex in Great Falls. Friends, now 33 years old, is expecting a son in November and plans to coach his daughter Alex's McLean Youth Soccer team.
"My soccer days are just playing with her in the back yard," said Friends.
Nate Friends is 76 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.