As far as birthdays go, Atholton’s Justin Ballmer had one Friday that just about takes the cake. In a must-win game on senior night, Ballmer celebrated his 18th birthday by scoring a game-high 16 points to help the Raiders defeat Mt. Hebron, 41-30, and clinch this year’s Howard County championship.
Ballmer made big plays all evening, but it was a key steal late in the fourth quarter of a two-possession game that helped break things open for good and help the Raiders put the finishing touches on the program’s first title since the 2008-09 season.
“Sometimes, when it is your day, it is your day,” Atholton coach Jared Albert said. “Senior day, his birthday … and he definitely stepped up when we needed somebody to step up. In a game where we weren’t maybe at our best, he was the one to give us that spark we needed.”
The win by Atholton (17-2, 18-3), combined with Centennial’s overtime victory over Oakland Mills (16-3, 18-4), secured sole-possession of this year’s championship. For Albert, whose dad Jim led that Raiders team to the title five years ago, it was a special moment.
“We didn’t talk much about the county championship over the last week, but the kids knew,” Albert said. “To win a game like that, in a must-win scenario, it says a lot about the make-up of the guys.
“It feels so good to bring that title back to Atholton and to bring that winning tradition back as well.”
It was obvious very early on that it was going to be a low-scoring affair. Atholton led just 16-11 after the first half.
But in the opening minutes of the third quarter, the Raiders scored eight straight points to extend its cushion into double-digits.
Mt. Hebron, which got a team-high 10 points from Mark Smith, made a run back to within two points in the fourth quarter. However, Atholton responded with one final push to put the game away.
The 30 points against marks the best defensive effort of the season for Atholton and it came at the perfect time.
“We didn’t have our best shooting performance, but what we leaned on was our defense,” Albert said. “We made some plays down the stretch and we really battled.”
In addition to Ballmer, Brandon Willis (10 points) and Michael Bernetti (8) also had big games for the Raiders in the win.
Atholton 41, Mt. Hebron 30
A (17-2, 18-3): Ballmer 16, Willis 10, Bernetti 8, Purdue 5,James 2.
MH (9-10, 11-11): M. Smith 10, Maloney 4, Herlihy 8, A. Smith 3, Andreas 2.
Half: 16-11 A.