The nation’s top-rated high school basketball player leads one of the nation’s best teams at Sanford’s Grace Christian School
By Billy Liggett | Photos by Ben Brown
Sarah Strong was on the other side of the world in Debrecen, Hungary — site of this year’s FIBA 3-on-3 U18 World Cup — when the then-No. 2 girls high school basketball player in the nation got a phone call with the big news. Sarah, entering her senior year with Grace Christian School in Sanford, learned she had moved up to No. 1 in the ESPNW Class of 2024 rankings. Just days away from leading Team USA to its third consecutive gold medal in the annual global tournament, Sarah took the news in stride.
“When I called her room and told her, I was pretty excited,” says her father, Danny Strong, who played basketball for NC State in the mid 90s before going on to an 16-year pro career overseas. “But she didn’t act like it was a big deal. She told me, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I’m playing charades with the girls. I gotta go.’”
The country’s top player is the centerpiece on a juggernaut of a basketball team at Grace Christian that has won back-to-back state championships with a combined 62-4 record. The entire roster returns from last year’s team — joining Sarah are teammates and fellow college prospects Icyss Storm, Isa Roman, Serenity McNair, Halisi Whitley and Miyah Campbell — and the schedule appears to be much more difficult with more games against nationally ranked schools and a few possible nationally televised appearances.
As a junior, Sarah averaged nearly 23 points a game and led the Crusaders in rebounds (13.9), assists (4.4), steals (3.4) and blocks (2.2). In both Team USA’s 3-on-3 semifinal win over Japan and gold medal clincher over France, she led the team in scoring.
She’s the real deal, and when her storybook run at Grace Christian comes to an end next spring, the choice is hers when it comes to where she’ll play next. In just the last month, she’s visited defending national champion LSU and Oregon and has had coaches from UConn, UNC, NC State and South Carolina come see her practice in Sanford.
“She’s going to go far because beyond all the attention and the expectations. She loves the game, she has a good heart, and she loves her teammates,” says her coach for the past three years at Grace, Chad Revelle. “She is not a high-maintenance person who wants to make all of this about her. Extremely humble, and I genuinely mean that. Her dad and her mom know the game, and she’s been raised right. They’ve taught her that it’s not all about ‘me, me, me.’ That’s going to serve her well.”
IN HER BLOOD
Danny Strong was one of the best all-around athletes to come out of South Carolina, where he was all-state in football and basketball at Great Falls High School between Charlotte and Columbia. He started 63 games for NC State from 1995-97 and averaged over 12 points and nearly 5 rebounds a game. He played professionally in France, Spain and Italy from 1999 to 2011, and was a four-time All Star in the French National Basketball League, where he led his team to a title in 2005.
Sarah’s mother, Allison Feaster, has an even better resume. She was the first athlete to be named Ivy League Player of the Year three times at Harvard, where she led the nation in scoring (28.5 points) in 1996. She also became the first Ivy Leaguer drafted into the WNBA when she became the fifth overall pick by the L.A. Sparks in 1998. She spent 10 years in the WNBA — playing for Charlotte and Indiana along the way — and spent many of her offseasons playing overseas in Spain.
When she found out she was pregnant with Sarah in 2005, Feaster remained in the Charlotte Sting lineup for three months until she had to start cutting her shorts at the waist to make them fit. So technically, Sarah already has WNBA minutes, if you count the womb.
Sarah was born in Madrid, Spain, later that year, and like most kids in Europe, her first sport wasn’t basketball, but soccer. Even on the pitch, she excelled.
“She played on co-ed teams with boys, and she played with kids who were a few years older, and she did very well,” her dad recalls. “I remember one game she played with her age group, and at one point, the coach wouldn’t let her score any more than four goals a game.”
She eventually took up the game she was born to play — considering her family history — but even before then, Danny says she showed great basketball IQ by critiquing her parents’ games. She would point out their strengths and weaknesses, he says, and it would all make sense, even coming from a kid. When she was 12, Sarah moved to North Carolina with her father, and it was here where the focus really turned to basketball.
“In the U.S., she began playing against some of the boys I was coaching, and she showed she could really handle herself, especially the physical part of the sport,” Danny says. “Her hand-eye coordination was excellent, even then, and she was able to make reads and think her way through situations beyond her age. Just to be able to compete against that kind of competition at that point, that’s when we really knew she had it.”
Sarah attended Fuquay-Varina High School as a freshman and flashed immediate potential in the 14-game COVID-shortened season, averaging 25 points a game (20 points more than then team’s second-leading scorer) and 19 rebounds. When Fuquay-Varina, like most public schools, went to an online-only format that spring in 2020, her parents began looking for an alternative, as he felt — both academically and athletically — Sarah would struggle in a “virtual-only” environment.
Enter Grace Christian School, nearly 30 miles southwest of their home. Danny was familiar with Grace’s new girls basketball coach, Chad Revelle, as his football-playing days at NC State crossed over with his time on the Wolfpack basketball team in the mid-90s. But more importantly, Sarah liked the environment at Grace.
For all the tenacity and vocal leadership she shows on the court, Sarah Strong is somewhat reserved off the court. Some might even say introverted. Feeling comfortable in her surroundings was important when it came to choosing a new school, and Sarah says the fact that she felt welcomed and accepted from the first visit played a big part in her decision to come to Sanford.
“Everyone was just really nice, and it felt like they really cared,” she says. “I like that it’s a smaller school — to have more time with teachers and to have them really get to know you. And I really liked the fact that it’s a Christian school.”
“We’d been to other schools before this, and this was the first and only time Sarah felt this connection right away,” Danny adds. “Before we even got in she said this was the place she needed to be.”
BUILDING A POWERHOUSE
In her first season at Grace, Sarah Strong averaged 25.5 points per game, 17.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists. The Crusaders went 29-1 — their only loss to a talented program out of South Carolina — and had wins with scores like 89-3, 90-8, 82-11 and 100-29 along the way. Four wins came via forfeit. There were close calls, too, with a few single-digit wins over teams from Durham, Wake Forest and, in the state title game, Charlotte.
But the season marked the arrival of Sarah in Sanford, as well as the arrival of Grace Christian as a potential basketball powerhouse.
Grace would have a 103-3 win in its third game the following year against a private school in Raleigh, and the team won its first 11 games before a trip to Florida for a tournament against some of the top teams in that state. After starting off with a close win against a strong DME Academy from Daytona Beach, Grace lost its next two against St. Thomas Aquinas (a state champion from Fort Lauderdale) and Miami Country Day (also a state champion).
That trip, says Revelle, was more of a learning experience for his team than the previous year’s state championship run. Despite the losses, it showed him and his girls that they could play against anybody.
“We beat a great DME Academy after being down by 11 with four minutes to go,” he says. “Then against St. Thomas Aquinas, we turned the ball over 24 times against a team that hit everything they saw. And Miami Country Day was the No. 2 team in the state at the time. But the girls learned that, yes, they can play against the best, but they can be defeated, too. Our schedule this year will be more of a challenge, and we are better prepared for that fight.”
For one, Grace Christian will not be in a conference this season — the Crusaders will be more of an “independent” team with more variety (tougher opponents) in their schedule. There will be big games in Tennessee, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., this year. And Revelle has been contacted by ESPN about possibly covering one or more than one Grace Christian games this year.
Sarah will be the main attraction, but Revelle is quick to point out that it’s not a one-woman show. Junior Icyss Storm is coming off a 13.8 points, 8.4 rebounds per game last season and is a solid D1 college recruit. Halisi Whitley, also a junior, averaged 11.1 last season, and junior Miyah Campbell averaged 9.6 points in just her sophomore year.
“Sometimes, when really good players are all on the same team, it doesn’t always come together, because egos can get in the way,” Revelle says. “But with this team, it’s been a blessing to see how they’ve come together and really embraced the culture here. These girls get it.
“They understand we have a special, unique situation here.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Revelle’s introduction to Sarah Strong was a short, grainy cell phone video sent by another coach. His team had enjoyed success with 14-11, 25-10 and 22-14 records in the three seasons before his arrival.
From the beginning, her coach saw obvious talent and potential. But what really made him realize that he had someone special was the first time he saw her compete against another team.
“She locks in like no player I’ve ever coached,” he says. “Coaches go ga-ga over scoring ability, and for obvious reasons, but Sarah … she’s the 21st Century version of Magic Johnson. She can shoot as well as anyone, but watch her play and watch the passes she can make. She’s led our team in assists the last two seasons, and she’s not a point guard. She’s willing to get other people involved. And when the moment gets big in a game, she responds in a big way.”
The past two seasons at Grace, her experience with the U18 FIBA 3-on-3 World Cup team, the season ahead and her experience playing for her father’s nonprofit Lady Strong programs are all leading to that “next step” for Sarah, and all signs are pointing to college basketball at the highest level. With schools like LSU, South Carolina, Oregon and UConn all doing their best to get Sarah’s attention, it’s safe to say the choice is hers.
So what will be the deciding factor?
“It’s hard to say,” says Sarah. “I’m doing a lot of visit and learning a lot about all of these schools. When I know, I’ll know. But I can’t really explain what the deciding factor will be. I’ll just know.”
“Her mother and I think it’s got to be a school that genuinely cares about the player both on and off the court,” says Danny. “The coach has to be someone who’s going to push her to be the best student she can be, but also develop her and her dream of becoming a professional basketball player. Both of these are going to be very important.”
Sarah dismisses the idea that being the No. 1 high school recruit means extra pressure. Instead, she says her focus for her senior year at Grace is simple — to lead her team and to develop her skill set. Whether she’s the top player or the 200th-ranked player, this focus doesn’t change.
“I just want to get better,” she says. “I have to keep working hard to prepare for college and to get into college shape. It’s different when you get to that level. The pace is faster, and the competition is better. So this year is about getting better — better shape, better fitness, better everything.”
Her coach says Sarah has handled the jump to “top-rated player” better than anyone could imagine. “It’s been interesting to see how the modern ‘top tier’ athlete gets recruited these days. It can be a bit overwhelming,” Revelle says. “But I’m thankful for Sarah’s dad and her mom — they’re with her on this journey, and they are protecting her. And it’s been good to see the community at Grace make her feel protected and at home here. Grace is a great place, and they’ve treated not only Sarah well, but myself and the other players so well through all of this. I definitely want to applaud that.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the wrong classification for Icyss Storm and Halisi Whitley, who are both juniors. In another correction, it was a fellow coach who provided Chad Revelle with the cell phone footage of Sarah Strong before her tryout. The Rant regrets these errors.