By Steve Jones
7:52 AM EST, January 25, 2013
Jimmy Carter was the newly-inaugurated President and Reggie Jackson had yet to take a swing with the New York Yankees when the Francis Scott Key boys' basketball team last made an appearance in the state semifinals.
The Eagles have seen plenty of lean years since 1977. The program's last winning season came in 2000-01, when the Eagles finished at 15-10. Francis Scott Key will break that 12-year drought this year, but the goals reach much further.
After opening with losses to Oakdale and Westminster, Coach Ryan Kimble's club defeated traditional county powers Winters Mill South Carroll, and Century in a six-day span to start the New Year. A win at Manchester Valley extended the winning streak and Francis Scott Key heads into the second half of the regular season with a 9-2 overall mark, tied with Westminster for the county's top spot at 6-1. The Eagles are locked in a four-way championship race that also includes Winters Mill and South Carroll.
"Now we realize what kind of work it takes to be successful, and we're willing to put the time in," said 6-foot-6 senior forward Blake Straitman. "We have to stay focused and keep our heads. "
Recent wins over three county schools that combined for one state championship and six appearances in the state semifinals since 2006 have lifted Key's spirits.
"You always want to believe in yourself, but you've got to win one of those big ones," said Kimble, now in his fifth year as Key's head coach. "Last year, we finished 8-15, but we lost a ton of close games in the county. We just couldn't get that signature win that would put us over the top.
"This year, we've won close games on a buzzer-beater and a three-point shot. To beat Winters Mill was great for our kids and our community, and it gave us the confidence to know that we could beat the best teams in the county."
A main reason for Key's success is its experience. Seven seniors are on the 14-player roster, with Max Bell, a 6-foot-7 forward, the unquestioned team leader. Bell averages a double-double in scoring (12.6) and rebounding (12.3), and makes 50 percent of his field-goal attempts.
"We all talked about how good we could be this year," said Bell, who never played organized basketball until he came to Francis Scott Key. "Even when someone gets their head down, someone else is there to pick it back up."
Bell gets plenty of help from Straitman (9.7 points, 5.6 rebounds per game) and sharpshooting senior point guard Justin Brown, who is among the county leaders in assists and shooting percentage from both three-point range and the foul line.
"I knew early on that Max could average a double-double," Kimble said. "Blake and Justin are fantastic three-point shooters. Brad Schug ( 6-foot-2 sophomore forward) is as strong a young man as I've ever seen, and plays great defense. (Seniors) Kris Myers (6-foot) and Jordan Birdsall (6-foot) are strong and smart players who defend so strongly and score when we need it. Our point guard, (5-foot-8 sophomore) Tyree Giles, is very quick and gets our offense moving. But we couldn't have won all of these games without the contributions of all 14 players."
Kimble is most impressed with the team's work ethic, which extends beyond the formal basketball season.
"You don't need to tell them to go to work; they do it on their own," Kimble said. "They're in the weight room and in the gym during the offseason, and they play AAU ball. The level of expectations has risen because of their hard work. These guys bring a great level of energy to practice every day. They know how hard they have to go at 8:30 at night, when they would rather be doing 10 other things."
Kimble and his staff went through some lean years before the program emerged as a county contender. But shortly after he took over at Key for the 2008-09 season, Kimble knew that the Eagles were on the rise.
"When our senior class came in as freshmen, we knew that they were going to be a very good group," he said. "They were given a lot of opportunities to get better, because they were athletically superior to the class above them. These young men have worked hard and been good examples for their peers."
It's been a long time since Francis Scott Key took the bus ride to College Park. The goals have been set, though Kimble and his players seem reluctant to talk about a trip to the state semifinals at Comcast Center with so many games remaining.
"We'd like to win a county title, get a bye in the playoffs, and host a playoff game," Kimble said. "Yesterday's team quote was 'Accomplishment is not a destination, it's a journey.' You've got to keep doing the right things over and over again."
The team's accomplishments have been recognized by the northwest Carroll community and inside the school, where many of Key's athletic teams have struggled during the last few years.
"It helps a lot to have this kind of support from our fans," said Straitman, who has also played golf, lacrosse, and tennis at Key. "There's a positive attitude everywhere. That helps to push us every game. We've been underestimated before, so we wanted to make a big statement coming into the season by getting big wins."
While Kimble is enjoying every victory, he's also gaining satisfaction from the fact that his team isn't an overnight sensation.
"It's been a long and slow build, and I think our kids should be applauded for the amount of work that they've done over the last three years," Kimble said. "The kids that are seniors now helped me change the culture. The standard has been set. They just have to keep believing in themselves. That will help them accomplish their goals and dreams."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun