River Hill sophomore Gary Sandler is averaging seven points a game for the Hawks, who are the second seed in the upcoming 3A East region playoffs. (Staff photo by Brian Krista)
Over the last four days, leading up to the start of the boys basketball playoffs, we've been previewing each of Howard County’s teams that received a top-four seed either in the 2A South Region or the 3A East Region. Today's segment focuses on River Hill.
All four teams have first-round byes and will get their postseasons underway on Thursday, Feb. 28.
3A East: 2nd seeded River Hill (Monday)
Record: 15-4 county, 17-5 overall
Last state final four appearance: 2007 (Champions)
Top players: Senior Walt Moody (20.4 ppg); Sophomore Charlie Thomas (16.7 ppg); Sophomore Gary Sandler (7.0 ppg).
Outlook: Despite a couple stumbles late in the season, losing two of their last three games, the Hawks secured the No. 2 seed in the region. A stretch of 12 straight victories during the middle of the year certainly helped the team’s cause.
The good news is that Moody, the county’s leading scorer this winter who missed the last two games of the regular season because of sickness, is back and ready to go. A loss to Howard with Moody out is something coach Matt Graves hopes will serve as a source of motivation.
“We didn’t have our go-to-guy and we didn’t play well. Hopefully that was a wake up call for the guys,” Graves said. “With or without Walt, if we play like that, we’re going home early.”
When the Hawks bring their “A” game, though, they are awfully tough to beat. Moody and Thomas, who is a 6-foot-6 forward, are the county’s top scoring interior duo. They each scored in double figures in every game but one and they play extremely well off one another.
Around them, River Hill features a plethora of guards capable of knocking down the outside shot. The Hawks’ roster features seven guys that have made two or more threes in one game.
Sandler and Mike Heitzmann are the leaders of that group, each having made 24 or more 3-pointers on the season.
The Hawks didn’t get any real favors with the draw, potentially having to face two-time defending region champion Centennial in the quarterfinals if the Eagles can defeat Stephen Decatur in their opening game.
When Centennial and River Hill met during the regular season, the Hawks escaped with a four-point overtime victory on the road.
Graves says he expects another barnburner should they meet again.
“Until someone knocks them off, the region title still goes through them. And as they say, to be the best you have to beat the best,” Graves said. “We know them, they know us … it would be a good one.”
With still a very young team, featuring only one senior starter, Graves is being careful not to put too much pressure on this group. Although, deep down, he knows the potential is there to do something special.
“My motto is be comfortable, being uncomfortable,” he said. “This is a brand new team with a winning record that hasn’t been in this position of being the favorite before. We have two really good scores, some guards that can hit shots … we have all the pieces.
“It just comes down to comfort and being able to go out and play our game.”