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Hoop Group Girls' Championship Recruiting Notebook: Pt. 3 (July 12, 2022)

07/13/2022, 8:15pm EDT
By Owen McCue

Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
MANHEIM, Pa. — The Hoop Group Girls’ Summer Championship took over Spooky Nook Sports from Sunday night through Tuesday afternoon, with just under a couple hundred teams vying for different brackets, including the 15U, 16U and 17U Hoop Group Summer League (HGSL) championships. 

Here’s the third part of our recruiting coverage, featuring interviews done during championship day on Tuesday:

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Ariana Smuda (2023 | Running Rebels 17U | Downingtown East)

Ariana Smuda wants you to know she’s not her older sister Bella.

The two sisters both have towering prescenes on the basketball court  — Bella is 6-5 and Ariana is 6-3 — but that’s as far as she says the on-court similarities go.

“It is hard sometimes just because there’s a lot of comparison,” Ariana said. “I know some people will be, ‘Oh your sister can do this, why can’t you?’ But we’re really different. I feel like a lot of the things she can’t do well I can do well and the other way around. … We’re both really different players even though we’re both really tall. We don’t have the same game at all.”


Ariana Smuda, Runnin Rebels 17U (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)

Bella Smuda, was a four-year starter at Downingtown East, finishing with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. In her second year at Liberty this past season, she averaged 5.5 points and five rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game, also leading her team in 34 blocks. 

Ariana’s career path has been quite different. She was a swing player as a freshman — not even 6-feet tall back then  — during Bella’s senior season. The sisters only shared the court for one game. 

Ariana was a varsity player as a sophomore, but didn’t see many minutes as a reserve.

Then came last summer when things started to change.

“I really made the leap my sophomore to junior year because that’s when I really fell in love with basketball,” Ariana said. “I worked super, super hard that summer at my game and I made a big jump I think.”

Ariana was a first team All-Ches-Mont player for the Cougars as a junior, helping the team to a 17-4 regular-season record and trip to the league title game. 

Her role is more expanded on the high school team and will grow even more next season after the graduation of fellow all-league players Lauren Kent and Cassidy Denning.

For the the Rebels, she said the best attribute she brings to the table is what some would call ‘doing the dirty work.’

“I just try to do the best I can and help my team out depending on what team I’m on,” Ariana said. “I feel like my best attributes are defense, shot blocking and rebounding and stuff like that. I really do enjoy defense too, so I try to do whatever I can to help my team defensively and then If I can also help my team offensively, whether that’s putbacks or little jumpers.”

In May, she took a visit to Kutztown and received her first scholarship offer. She also reeled off Ursinus College, Arcadia and Marymount (Va.) as Division III programs she’s been in touch with.

“I’m still developing so I have a long way to grow, but they think I have a really big ceiling that I haven’t tapped into,” Ariana said of what intrigues college coaches. “And they like that I rebound, I hustle, I’m fast for my size. Defense too.”

Arian's always looked up to her older sister, both literally and figuratively. She said seeing her older sister be comfortable with her height growing up left a profound impact on her.

There's been a lot less literal looking up to her sister as of late as Ariana said she is still growing. She was listed at 6-2 at one point this offseason, but at her most recent measurement, she noted she grew at least another half inch.

The extra height is definitely a benefit to her game, but she also said it’s presented some challenges developing a little later than most girls her age.

“Being a late bloomer has made it a little bit difficult in trying to catch up in my body and stuff like that, but I feel like I’ve worked really hard with my dad especially at coordination stuff and just do different things to help my body catch up because naturally it’s a little slower,” Ariana said.

Her father isn’t her only training partner in the driveway. When Bella is home in the summer or during breaks throughout the school year, Ariana has a Division I forward to match up against..

The sisters team up to play against (and usually beat) their father Jimmy and younger brother JoJo, and sometimes even their mother as well in a 3-on-2 game.

Ariana particularly embraces the matchups with Bella, however, as the age gap kept the two from playing against each other growing up.

“She usually blocks me, but sometimes I block her too,” Ariana said. “It’s really fun.”

The goal is to keep improving so those matchups become a little less lopsided by the time Ariana is likely playing at the next level some time next year. — Owen McCue

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Priyanka Ponnam (2025 | XGen Elite 16U | George School)

Priyanka Ponnam’s first major activity growing up was Kuchipudi, a classical Indian dance. 

She also tried just about every other sport growing up, but by third grade she started to become taller than most of her peers and it was time to give basketball a try.

“The dance I did was the complete opposite, so when I first started basketball it took a while to get used to the footwork,” Ponnam said.


Priyanka Ponnam, XGen Elite 16U (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)

Not too long.

After just her freshman season at George School, the 6-3 forward has Division I offers from Harvard and Penn. She also took an unofficial visit to Princeton in May.

“For me, they like how I communicate and move out on the floor and how I talk,” Ponnam said. “They also love how I play the game.”

Ponnam’s parents are both immigrants from India, where they were both athletes growing up. Her father played different sports and her mother, Saroja, was a volleyball player.

But like many others Saroja became entranced with Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant after he got drafted, and she became a complete hoops head, now following basketball at all levels.

It’s a shared interest between mother and daughter, though Priyanka’s fascination with watching the sport doesn’t quite compare to her mother’s.

“I am (watching a lot of basketball), but probably not as much as she is,” Ponnam said.

Ponnam enjoys watching Las Vegas Aces A’Ja Wilson, the 2020 WNBA MVP, and the Atlanta Dream’s Rhyne Howard, the league’s most recent No. 1 pick — two good post players to model her versatile game after.

”I think my size is definitely the biggest thing, but I can shoot, I can drive, I can go in the post,” Ponnam said. “Any position anybody wants me to play, I can do anything.”

Ponnam displayed some of her versatility in Tuesday’s 16U championship win over the Runnin’ Rebels. She scored just two points but made her impact in a variety of ways, grabbing boards and blocking shots and stepping outside the paint to help the offense run.

She assisted on Amaia Jackson’s buzzer beater three to win the game.

George School second-year coach La'Keisha Sutton, a former standout at South Carolina then professional player and Harlem Globetrotter, tabbed Ponnam as the first player to help build the program around last season.

Ponnam was a first team All-Friends Schools League player as a freshman, helping the team to a 12-10 mark and a runner-up finish in the Commonwealth Cup, the independent schools’ secondary tournament.

She said Gigi Johnson (Philadelphia Comets 16U) and Basha Harrington (Lehigh Valley Fever 16U) are two others joining the George School program next season who play at a high level year round as the Cougars attempt to climb the FSL hierarchy.

“I was probably the first actual basketball player recruited there, so it was the beginning of a good program,” Ponnam said. “This year, we have more recruits coming. We were (12-10) last year, so we surprised a lot of people.” — Owen McCue

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Breana Delaney (2023 | NJ Shoreshots 17U | St. John Vianney, N.J.)

In a star-studded lineup at St. John Vianney during the first three seasons of her high school career, Breana Delaney found other ways to help out.

She calls them the ‘little things’, rebounding, assists, drives to the baskets, then there’s her stellar defense as well … all part of ‘team basketball’ for a squad that won the Tournament of Champions this spring.

Two of the stars of last year’s squad Madison St. Rose (Princeton) and Megan Cahalan (Holy Cross) graduated, leaving room for someone to step up next to N.J. Player of the Year Zoe Brooks (N.C. State commit). Delaney is certainly making her case this summer.

“We’ve had amazing players like Maddie St. Rose and Zoe Brooks so my role from my freshman to junior year was kind of as a defensive player and just moving the ball on offense rather than a scorer, but going into my senior year I’ll develop into more of a scoring role in high school,” Delaney said.

Delaney’s NJ Shoreshots 17U team isn’t lacking in the talent department either with Lauren Scognamiglio (Bucknell), Emma Carman (Quinnipiac) and Margaret Cavanaugh (New Hampshire) already committed to Division I level programs.

Delaney, last year’s Hoop Group Summer League 16U Defensive Player of the Year, was still doing the ‘little things’ this weekend, whether that was locking up opponents, crashing the offensive glass (six offensive boards in one game) or diving for loose balls.

Her offensive game was also on display. She scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting in a quarterfinal loss to NEPA Elite.

“I’ve always had the ability to score, but with those players they’re obviously so amazing with Vianney and with ShoreShots we just play team ball, move it and everything,” Delaney said.

With her multi-talented skillset and proven ability to give a team whatever it needs, it won’t be hard to find a fit at the next level.

“I want a team that plays fast and I just want to find a school that feels like home, like a family, and a coaching staff and team that I click with,” Delaney said. — Owen McCue

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Brianna Barr-Buday, XGen Elite 16U (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)

Brianna Barr-Buday (2024 | XGen Elite 16U | Nichols School, N.Y.)

Brianna Barr-Buday has felt the love from the City of Brotherly Love as of late. Two of Philly’s Division I hoops programs — St. Joe’s and La Salle — offered the 6-2 forward last month.

St. Joe’s was the most recent as Barr-Buday announced an offer from the Hawks after an unofficial visit in late June.

“I was not expecting that,” Barr-Buday said. “I was super shocked, super happy, super excited.”

“They just like my drive, my fight. They said that I was a hard worker, a hard player."

Along with St. Joe’s and La Salle, Barr-Buday has offers from Niagara, Canisius and Buffalo and has visited all five campuses.

She and her mother both said she was a fan of Philadelphia during her stops at St. Joe’s and La Salle.

“I love it,” Barr-Buday said. “It’s such a cool city depending on where you are. It’s really beautiful there.”

Albany, Marist and Lafayette are three more programs Barr-Buday said reached out. 

“I really like a serious, hard working coach,” Barr-Buday said of what she’s looking for in a school. “I like to see the players interact with their coach, see how the chemistry is, see how the family feel is. Other than that, everything is kind of open to me.”

Barr-Buday’s physicality and energy are present the moment she steps on a basketball court. She can be really tough to stop when everything is clicking as highlighted by nine first-half points in Tuesday’s 16U  championship win. She was also active on the glass and used her size and athleticism to her advantage on defense.

Barr-Buday feels comfortable hitting 15-foot jump shots. She thinks the next step for her will be carrying that shooting stroke out past the 3-point line. — Owen McCue

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Meg Robbins (2023 | Lehigh Valley Fever 17U | Spring-Ford)

Meg Robbins said she’ll be back at Spooky Nook later this summer as a spectator.

Robbins, a 6-2 center, has nearby Elizabethtown College at the top of her list of potential colleges.

She visited campus in mid-June and hopes to come watch the team play summer league in Manheim before potentially taking an overnight visit some time during the season.

“I’m pretty sure they reached out last summer, but then it’s really started to increase,” Robbins said. "They saw me play in April here, and then I visited and I’m getting to meet the coaches and all those type of things. I really love it there.”

Robbins said she had some communication with Miami (Ohio) at one point and there are some other schools in the mix, but Elizabethtown is the program standing out so far.

In Tuesday’s action at Spooky Nook, it was evident Robbins’ game is improving. She said she’s seen strides in her jump shot, though she is still trying to work on its consistency. 

“I’m still working on positing up and being more comfortable with second moves and that type of thing,” Robbins said. “But definitely my shooting has been increasing.”

Robbins could be an X-factor in a multitude of ways for Spring-Ford next season.

Coming off a torrid late-season stretch that took the Rams on a somewhat surprising run to the District 1 title game and state quarterfinals, almost everyone is back in 2022-23.

Robbins, the team’s lone true post presence, could provide more of a scoring punch down low for a guard-heavy Spring-Ford team.

She will also be one of at most two seniors on the squad and will be looked upon to help lead the group.

“I’m hoping to be a big leader this season,” Robbins said. “I’m looking forward to it.

“I’m excited,” she added. “We’re starting to play some summer league games and that’s been really good. I haven’t been to any but I’m hearing some great things”

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United NJ's Maya Summerville holds the ball. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Maya Summerville (2024 | United NJ 17U | Morristown, N.J.)

Division I interest is just starting to roll in for Summerville. Richmond, Manhattan and Lafayette are among the programs to reach out to the 6-foot forward/wing, who was a first team all-league player as a sophomore at Morristown this past season.

“Pretty much defense,” Summerville said of what stands out to college coaches. “They like my athleticism and they like the fact that I can rebound.”

Summerville played 16U last season and is playing up a level again this season with United’s 17U group. She scored 12 points to help her team to a Hoop Group Showcase League championship on Tuesday.

Summerville also blocked a pair of shots and made good decisions with the ball in her hands, finding teammates on drives to the hoop and the fast break.

She credits the addition of a budding offensive game to her defensive prowess as part of the reason coaches started calling June 1.

“I think I started to become a little more aggressive offensively, or at least I tried,” Summerville said.

Summerville was hard to stop once she got into the lane with her athleticism and size, finishing in traffic and also getting to the line twice. 

She said the next step is improving her jump shot, and some other aspects of her offensive game to unlock her full potential as a player.

“I feel like I need to grow a little bit just overall,” Summerville said. “Just working on my craft, and continuing to work this summer and then we’ll see what happens with the high school season.” — Owen McCue

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Amaia Jackson (2025 | XGen Elite 16U | Bishop Kearney, N.Y.)

It didn’t take long for Jackson to start piling up Division I offers — just one high school season.

Jackson averaged 14 points per game for Bishop Kearney’s Class 2A New York state championship team this past season and received her first Division I offer from Binghamton less than a month later. Niagra followed soon after and Canisius offered in late June and Buffalo at the beginning of July. 

“It’s really exciting,” Jackson said of her recruitment. “They like a lot of stuff, how I can dribble the ball and pressure on defense, stuff like that.”

Jackson knocked down a buzzer-beater three from the corner to deliver XGen Elite a 16U championship on Tuesday. The bucket finished off a 12-point night for Jackson, all coming in the second half. It was just the second game-winner at the buzzer she’s ever hit.

“It was great, felt really good,” Jackson said. — Owen McCue


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