Oakland Mills boys basketball coach Jon Browne doesn't shy away from the questions, facing all the “is this the year?” inquiries head on.
The truth is, after having watched his Scorpion teams fall short in the regional finals four of the last five years, Browne finds himself asking those same questions. The pair of county titles during that same span has been great, but at this point he knows the true measure of success is something bigger.
“It's gone from being a monkey on my back to a gorilla and now it's practically a wooly mammoth … it's on my mind everyday,” Browne said. “You don't want to diminish the importance of the regular season, but it's no secret at this point that we need to take that next step. Until we get over that hump, those questions are never going to go away.”
In his quest to reach the state semifinals for the first time in his head-coaching career, Browne finds himself with a squad certainly capable of clearing that hurdle this winter. Four guys with starting experience are back from last year's team that lost to Potomac in the 2A South region final, including the team's leading scorer and rebounder Mamadou Ndiaye (19.1 ppg and 9.8 rpg).
Throw in impact transfer Will Robinson from St. Frances, who averaged 8.6 points and 4.8 rebounds a game in the MIAA A Conference as a junior, and there's reason for optimism.
“It's early, but I can say with confidence that we have as good a chance as we've ever had,” Browne said. “We have enough talent, now it's a matter of what we are able to do with it. I hope having kids back from that team last year that was embarrassed by (Potomac), they remember that sting and are motivated by it.”
Oakland Mills isn't the only Howard County team, though, feeling that this winter could be the year for a breakthrough.
River Hill (13-10 overall last season) brings back three of its top four scorers, including Wisconsin-bound senior Charlie Thomas. Thomas, who is the county's leading returning scorer (20.2 ppg) and rebounder (11.3), is one of two Hawks — along with Gary Sandler — that have been four-year varsity starters. River Hill hasn't been to the state semifinals since the team won it all in 2007.
Glenelg is in a similar position in terms of returning talent. The Gladiators boast four seniors — Matt Hammert, Dom Napolitano, Nick Oates and Daine Van de Wall — that all have at least two prior years of starting experience on varsity and all averaged nine or more points a game last winter.
After finishing a game under .500 in county play the last two years, Glenelg coach Jansen McMillan says this is the year the program has been building toward.
“It's time to show our true value and represent to the fullest,” McMillan said. “We finally have those seniors that have been through the battles and hopefully now we have a chance to use that experience to our advantage.”
Glenelg hasn't made the state semifinals since 1973.
Centennial is another team that brings back its core. Isaiah White (16.5 ppg) and Tom Brown (13.4 ppg) were the Eagles' two leading scorers during a 17-7 campaign a season ago.
And that's not even mentioning defending county-champion Atholton or runner-up Reservoir, which were both hit hard by graduation but still return a player apiece that averaged in double-figures scoring a year ago — Brandon Willis (Atholton) and Seth Henry (Reservoir).
Throw in Mt. Hebron, Long Reach and Howard as under .500 county teams from last winter that have a bulk of returning pieces and the league title race figures to be extremely competitive.
“I think people (around the state) are sleeping on the county a little bit, but I think with the coaches in this county and the depth of returning players, it's going to be another really strong year,” Atholton coach Jared Albert said. “Come playoff time, you are going to have some extremely dangerous teams once again.”
Glenelg Country, coming off a 7-11 season in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference, has a retooled roster that is incredibly young but very talented. Darryl Williams is coming off a season where he average 11 points a game and is the Dragons' lone senior.
A pair of 6-foot-9 international transfers — Anthony Longpre and Aurimas Tverijonas — will serve as immediate impact guys to go along with the returning sharp-shooting backcourt duo of Joshua Hightower and Matthew Bernetti.
Chapelgate went 7-6 in the MIAA B Conference last winter and has two double-digit scorers back in Matthew Frierson (15.8 ppg as a junior) and Malik Grandy (10.4). Frierson led all area players with 85 made 3-pointers a season ago.
There are two county teams — Marriotts Ridge and Hammond — with new coaches this winter. Dave Appleby, who has a long coaching history in the county and most recently was the varsity coach at Wilde Lake in 2010 and 2011, takes over a Marriotts Ridge program that went 8-16 overall last year.
Mike Salapata, meanwhile, will be the new leader of the Hammond program. Salapata, who has spent the last two years coaching the JV team at Oakland Mills, has previous varsity coaching experience at New Town.
Hammond has won just a combined three county games the last two years.
“I'm treating it like everyone has a clean slate, we're starting everything fresh,” Salapata said. “I didn't even really ask much about last year's team when I got the job, who played or anything like that … it's all about moving forward now.”
With the season starting for the public schools on Dec. 5, and the private schools already underway, we are releasing the team-by-team breakdowns four at a time leading up to opening night.
The schedule is below and the capsules can be found HERE: http://bsun.md/1CBn0ew
Tuesday: Atholton, Centennial, Chapelgate and Glenelg Country
Wednesday: Glenelg, Hammond, Howard and Long Reach
Thursday: Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron, Oakland Mills and Reservoir
Friday: River Hill and Wilde Lake