Reese Mona drives up a long, winding dirt gravel road in a Gator utility vehicle, proudly showing off the place he calls home. The Maryland basketball walk-on has a wide smile on his face as we reach where the end of the 62-acre property meets the highway in La Plata, Maryland.
“So there’s Mona Farm Place,” he says while pointing to a rustic white sign to his left, which also has “Preference” written in bold letters across the top. Further below, the signs reads, “Circa 1824” — indicating the farm’s origins, which his family took over in 1971. He takes pride in the fact that his family has restored this piece of history.
The junior guard then turns around and drives back up the road alongside the kind of perfect white picket fence you see in movies. He’s clearly in his element, surrounded by open fields with the crisp November air whisking at his back. It’s been nearly two months since he’s returned here from College Park, and he’s relishing every second of it.
“Growing up on the farm is definitely special to me. … It’s just something special to me to have everyone close, and that’s what builds such a close family,” Mona told Testudo Times. “And all the chores and farm work that I’ve done in my life, it’s pushed me. … The toughness that I have and the work ethic that I have has come through that.”
Mona has what he likes to call “farm strength” or “farm toughness” instilled in him from his childhood. It’s both representative of the literal muscle that manual labor builds and the mental drive that comes with it.
The saying makes his dad, Mike Mona, chuckle.
“It didn’t matter if there’s a foot of snow on the ground, doesn’t matter if it’s 20 degrees outside,” he told Testudo Times. “Whatever the cows needed, whatever the horses needed, whatever the farm conditions...you still had to go take care of business.
“I think the farm strength is more of achieving your goal with the end of the day. And you know, getting the wood in the house to heat the house at the end of the day, it’s kind of a rewarding feeling.”
He’s known that feeling his whole life. It’s why he and his wife Keri wanted to raise Reese, along with his older brother Mitchell and younger sister Raygan, on the farm.
When Mike’s parents, Margaret and Michael Mona, bought the property in 1971, it had been abandoned for some time. Trees had started growing in the doors and windows of the original white farmhouse, which was built nearly two centuries ago, and it was pretty common to find wildlife roaming — or slithering — around.
The family worked hard to restore the old house and installed central heating as well, though burning wood was the main source of heat.
The story goes that Doctor Francis Wills was looking at different properties to build a house for his wife in the mid 1800s, and when she saw what is now Mona Farms, she said, “This is my preference.”
“You can probably feel something when you go in, it’s like a charm,” Margaret says of it now.
Alongside his sister, Stephanie, Mike would spend hours after school completing other chores around the farm. The family had over 60 cattle at one point back then and also grew corn, which it would then take to a mill to get ground.
“My whole life; born, raised in La Plata on the farm,” Mike said. “So it’s kind of special doing the same thing for our kids, Reese and Reagan and Mitchell, you know building the house and raising a family here.”
Margaret Mona often babysat Reese, along with Mitchell and Raygan, when they were little — after all, she was only a few hundred feet away.
“You had to keep the children busy or you were in big trouble,” she said.
So one day, when Reese was 2 ½ years old, she managed to get the kids excited about cleaning the basement and garage. Most toddlers would just play pretend and take it as a game, but not him. Even now, Margaret has a vivid picture in her mind of her grandchild holding a mop as he scrubbed the floor so hard that sweat beads began to form on his forehead.
”Even when he was 2 ½, he had that work ethic. It was just too much,” Margaret said as she laughed and looked across the room at her grandson with admiration in her eyes. “He’s just driven.”
At around the same age, Reese and Mitchell would watch as their dad chopped wood with an axe and then help carry the firewood over to the house, which the family used to heat the house and save money. Reese couldn’t carry much more than one log at the time.
“Reese would bring all this wood in, and of course you have to burn the wood for the heat,” Mike said. “He’d look at it a couple hours and be like, ‘We wasted all the wood!’”
Back home for the weekend, Reese explains how he helped feed the cows and horses, get hay, blow leaves, mend fences, bush hog fields, and of course, cut the firewood himself, once he was older.
He leans against the white picket fence that encloses the family’s cows and laughs as he’s asked about his craziest experiences with them. By the time he was born, the Monas stopped milking the cattle or anything like that, but they buy and sell them as a way to maintain the land. Reese refers to the cattle as “basically like pets.”
When he was around 12 years old, he was tasked with bucking at a bull to lore it into the castration area. Eventually he got it, but the first try did not go according to plan.
“I was standing my ground for a second, then got scared and ran out and like flipped over the fence,” he said. “He ran right at me and I ran out of there.”
The cows often tried to break loose, and sometimes they succeeded. One day, Reese opened his Snapchat to see a post from his friend with several of the family’s cows roaming alongside the nearby highway. “Traffic on 301,” the post read. “Oh no, it’s just the Mona’s cows are on the loose again.”
Staring across from him now are six brown and white cows the family recently bought to prevent any more crazy escapes. These ones are supposed to be a bit of a calmer breed and are much less likely to go running.
As he got more invested in sports, that began to take a priority — he spent countless hours getting shots up on a basketball court outside his house pretending to be Steve Blake — but the farm chores still had to get done somehow. If Reese had a noon game, he was up early that morning to get the wood chopped for the day or whatever else had to be done.
The mornings got even earlier once he made the switch to St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. Before they could drive, Reese and Mitchell left with Margaret before the sun was up to make the commute. They’d go with their grandma to her office downtown and then take the metro and a shuttle bus to get to school. And even once he could make the drive himself, it was still an hour-and-a-half ways away.
Regardless of the lengthy drive, head coach Sean McAloon, who is now at IMG Academy, said Reese was always the first one in the gym for early morning lifts at 6:15 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Whenever I saw Reese was the first ones there despite where he lived, I knew the rest of the team didn’t have any excuses,” McAloon told Testudo Times. “He’s easily one of the best humans outside of just basketball that I’ve gotten to work with.”
Alongside current teammate Anthony Cowan Jr, Reese helped lead St. John’s to a DCSAA Championship in 2015 and a long-awaited WCAC Championship in 2016, in which he had a crucial three-pointer late. As a senior in 2016-17, Reese averaged 10.7 points per game and was named a Second Team All-WCAC selection.
There is never any sense of resentment or annoyance in Mona’s voice whenever he talks about the extra efforts he made as a kid, but rather a wide grin as he recalls his childhood. Mona understands all of it made him who he is and he takes a great deal of pride in that. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
So far in his junior season, Mona’s played in 22 minutes of game action after only seeing 29 minutes in the entirety of 2018-19.
His signature moment came in the Terps’ 80-50 win over Oakland on Nov. 16, when he scored five points on consecutive possessions to make the Xfinity Center and his teammates go absolutely nuts.
Uncut. Unfiltered. The Reese Mona Experience. pic.twitter.com/SyPexmswBs— Sean Montiel (@SeanMMontiel) November 16, 2019
When Mona talks about that moment, that one that sent Xfinity to a roar and showed Terp nation what he’s capable of, he doesn’t talk about himself. He doesn’t talk about what the moment meant for his career or how it felt to see people talking about him online.
He talks about his teammates’ reactions, because that’s just the kind of person Mona is. He describes the joy of seeing his them jump up and down on the hardwood, and the happiness he felt to make his teammates proud, that they appreciated him.
“They way they reacted is probably one of the best parts, just knowing that they appreciate what I do, and just how every day we cheer for them and they do the same when we’re on the and court make a shot,” he said. “It’s awesome my teammates are as great as they are to cheer me on like that.”
A little less than two weeks later, head coach Mark Turgeon made a bold move to sub Mona in with Maryland trailing 49-44 with 11:59 remaining in the second half against Harvard in the Orlando Invitational. Led by Cowan, the Terps went on a 12-2 run to take a 56-53 lead.
“You’re having fun, huh?” Darryl Morsell asked his teammate during the subsequential timeout.
“Yeah!” Mona said.
He didn’t touch the ball, but it didn’t matter. Mona does the little things that can often make the biggest difference.
“I just got frustrated and I just knew that he’d go in and try to guard and box out and share the ball,” Turgeon said after the 80-73 victory. “So it was good. ... I believe in Reese. I believe all Reese wants to do is win.”
Turgeon again got frustrated in Maryland’s loss to Seton Hall Thursday, so he switched things up by sending Mona in a few times. Though the Terps couldn't pull off a crucial run this time around, he made an impact on the defensive end, grabbing a steal and forcing a charge.
And though he’s finally getting a chance to show it to the world, his teammates say Mona has always been that guy in practice and training.
Aaron Wiggins says Mona “is literally a different breed” when it comes to his work ethic and heart.
“Seeing him here coming in my freshman year, I knew it right away because you get in the weight room and he’s doing everything with a different mindset than everybody else,” Wiggins said. “Everybody else, for the most part is just thinking to themselves to get the job done, to be prepared and ready to go. Him for the most part, he’s thinking to himself, like he can do everything and he’s going to do it to his best.
“Like he does everything at his hardest pace. Lifting with Kyle [Tarp], practicing, he’s just always locked in and paying attention.”
When he comes home these days, it’s often a chance for Mona to unwind. He likes being in the open space, away from all the noise.
While giving a tour of the farm, he stops in front of an old wooden barn with a faded red tin roof. On the lower level are rows of stables that were often used for the family’s horses, but lay barren now.
After Mona hops his way up the flight of creaky wooden stairs, reaching the loft of the barn, a wave of nostalgia hits.
He takes a few slow steps and looks around. He looks at the hay bales that he and his best friends used to sit on in high school, at the different spots and corners he had hid in for games years before that, at the rafters that once likely seemed so far up.
In the midst of a chilly, overcast day, one might expect the old barn to be dark and musty, but that isn’t the case. Instead, rays of light pour in through the cracks of the wood siding on the rear end of the loft, giving a sense of warmth and comfort throughout the old structure.
But it’s the large opening in the front that calls his attention. He’s been smiling and laughing while sharing childhood memories all afternoon, but in that moment he falls silent as he peers out at the place that’s made him the man he is today.
At this elevation, he’s among the trees. The few nearest ones have lost most of their leaves at this point, their branches bare and swaying in the wind. But further beyond are rows of rich evergreens, mixed in with specks of orange and red and yellow.
He is drawn in by the beauty of the landscape, trying to soak in as much of the calm, peaceful feeling it brings him before the hectic life of being a student-athlete picks back up again. He loves both worlds, but there’s no denying this is home.