Upper tier emerging in competitive Howard County boys basketball landscape

After a year of reloading, Howard County boys basketball coaches are hoping for a return to prominence this winter.

It was just three seasons ago that two county programs — Centennial and Oakland Mills — won state championships. The last two years, however, no team has been able to advance past the region finals. And while the league itself has continued to be competitive from top to bottom, the hope is that this might be the year a handful of elite teams once again emerge.

“It was interesting because last year, you felt like a lot of teams were sort of in that year where next year is the year,” Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel said. “It was just everybody kind of all together.”

Hollwedel is hoping his Eagles’ squad, which has six seniors returning with starting experience, will be among those that are ready to separate from the pack.

The county title conversation, though, has to start with River Hill. The Hawks bring back all five starters from a team that won the program’s first league crown since 2002 last season. A senior-heavy squad boasts quality guards — Luke Champion and Jacob Krause — and have experienced front court players in Dylan Daniels and junior OJ Okojie.

Tying the team together is senior Jaden Martin, who earned first-team All-County honors last season after averaging 14.5 points and 5.7 rebounds. As a three-year starter, he assumed the leadership role to guide his new varsity teammates through their first season.

He won’t have to do nearly as much transitioning this year, though, as the Hawks have nine returning players who know what it takes to capture a county championship.

“The big thing is everyone sacrificing some for the good of the team,” coach Matt Graves said. “That’s kind our motto right now because we have scorers, we have people who can have some really big games for us. But when we don’t, we have to make sure that those guys help each other out and take care of each other.”

Another contender is Wilde Lake, which finished one game behind River Hill in the county standings but defeated the Hawks in the 3A East quarterfinals. The Wildecats then beat Centennial, becoming the lone county team to make its respective regional final before falling to Stephen Decatur.

While Player of the Year Trea Keys (18.6 points per game) is back for his junior year, Wilde Lake graduated first-team All-County forward Marquise Bullett, who averaged 13.2 points and was the league’s second-leading rebounder, as well as some of its other biggest contributors.

In their absence, coach Deonne Wingfield said the Wildecats will rely more on 6-foot-9 senior Gerald Van Tassel, senior forward Prophelando “PJ” Joseph and sophomore guard Marc Marshall.

“We’re looking to at least match if not do better than we did last year,” Van Tassel said. “But we’re really trying to win the county championship this year. We unfortunately fell up short last year, but I think definitely this year we think we have a great shot at it.”

Centennial, meanwhile, has finished in the top four of the county standings in each of the past seven years, and it anticipates to be near the top again this season.

The Eagles, which finished 7-4 in league play and 17-8 overall last season, usually have six or seven seniors per year but had just four a year ago. They now have seven seniors who played varsity last season to go along with five juniors who excelled together on the junior varsity squad.

“There’s a lot of experience coming back,” Hollwedel said. “I really like the depth of our team.”

Among the seniors are three third-year varsity players: Andrew Hohmann, Kaleb Addisu and Jaden Williams. The first two averaged more than eight points per game last season, while Williams contributed valuable minutes off the bench. Also look out for senior Corey Eudell, the team’s starting point guard last season, and senior guard Sean Taylor, who has the ability to shoulder the scoring load when needed.

In the frontcourt, Hollwedel said 6-foot-6 senior Hayden Ford will provide the Eagles with an athletic option to score around the rim.

Hammond and Oakland Mills were the best county teams two years ago, but both programs took a step back last season due to significant roster turnover. The Golden Bears were 11-13, while Oakland Mills went 4-7 in the county and finished outside the top two in the county standings for just the second time in the past eight seasons.

That shouldn’t be the case again this season. Hammond welcomes back scoring guard Micah Henry, who earned second-team All-County honors as a sophomore, and his starting backcourt partner Robert Gordon. Both players scored at least 11 points per game last season. Senior David Edwards was primarily a role player a year ago, but coach Michael Michael Salapata has been “extremely impressed” with the 5-foot-10 guard and expects him to be a key contributor.

For Oakland Mills, senior forwards Robert Burgess and Ke’von Simpson will combine with junior guard Daeshawn Eaton in hopes of turning the Scorpions back into a county contender.

“We had our worst season a year ago going 8-16 after five 20-win seasons [and are] looking to rebound this year,” coach Jonathan Browne said. “The jury is still out.”

Reservoir returns just 3 players from a team that finished with a 7-4 county record a year ago, but the Gators bring up a slew of juniors that finished 20-2 at the junior varsity level last season. Expect Mike Coughlan’s team to once again be strong.

Glenelg is hoping to build off a 5-6 league play mark last season behind senior guard Garrett Mills and senior forward Jordan Taylor, who have each played on varsity for at least two years prior to this season. According to coach Jansen McMillan, 6-foot-5 junior Ryan Davis also has a chance to put up big numbers.

Then there’s Atholton, who coach Jared Albert said will rely on its junior guard trio of Maxwell Murray, Justin Oates, and Casey Parkins.

Even Howard, which lost 90 percent of its scoring from last season, expects to improve on its 9-14 record.

“I honestly think we will have a better record this year over last year,” Lions coach Seth Willingham said. “We have great kids who have been working very hard.”

Marriotts Ridge and Mt. Hebron finished at the bottom of the league standings last season, but some coaches have tabbed them as sleeper teams this year. Mustangs guard Brandon Held, a second-team all-county selection last season as a sophomore, and Vikings junior guard Brandon Prox should be two of the better scorers in the county.

Rounding out the county is Long Reach, which have dealt with injuries and several departures. The Lightning will start the season without reigning first-team all-county forward Tre Morgan, who suffered a lower leg injury playing football. They also lost second-team all-county guard Chad Brown to St. Frances Academy and his brother, Chan Brown to Oakland Mills.

Similar to past years, Graves said there isn’t an overwhelming county favorite entering the season. He said the teams who emerge as contenders will win at home and find ways to secure victories on the road, which he believes will be more difficult because of the abundance of Howard County coaching experience.

These coaches and programs will also have the added motivation of wanting to knock off the defending county champs.

“These aren’t brand new people coming in,” Graves said. “These are coaches who have game plans, who have philosophies, and we have a big target on our back, and I stress to the kids that we need to come ready to play and play our style.”

County championship race

The Howard County public schools will again play 16 county games this year, and all of them will count towards the league standings.

Last season, they ditched the 19-game schedule for a 16-game one and split the league into two divisions. Each team played opponents outside their division once and those within their division twice, though only the second contest had county championship implications. In total, 11 county games — one against each team — affected the league standings.

“The schedule is identical to last year except now, if you played at home the first time against a team you’re playing away,” Graves said. “So all it is is flipped venues.”

Shot clock

The second change entering this season is the implementation of the 35-second shot clock, which the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association announced in May for boys basketball.

Long Reach coach Andrew Lazzor said the shot clock will have a “negligible effect” on his team because of its offensive style. The Lightning like to push the ball, so Lazzor doesn’t see many situations where they’ll hold the ball for 35 seconds.

Graves said the Hawks have been practicing with a shot clock but also doesn’t see it hindering their up-tempo attack.

“Towards the end of game, it will change how we strategize,” Martin said. “But for the most part, I’m not really worried about it.”

However, the coaches agreed the shot clock will impact end-of-quarter and situations.

“We’re going to be prepared for the different situations that are out there,” Graves said. “Two for ones, end-of-the-game management with how much time’s left, should we foul, should we not foul, is it better to go for a two or three. It’s a process that’s going on with myself as well as my team.”

Lazzor explained how teams will no longer be able to hold the ball until its opponent’s defense breaks down or is forced to foul.

Having dealt with the shot clock as a St. Mary’s College assistant coach, Lazzor said he learned different ways to handle shot-clock situations and is excited to bring that knowledge to the high school level.

Private schools

With a new coach and several varsity newcomers, Glenelg Country doesn’t have the proven firepower like in years past.

The Dragons lost Howard County Co-Player of the Year Anthony Longpre (St. Joseph’s University) as well as guards Jalen Gabbidon (Yale) and Isaiah Burnett (Navy), leaving senior Caidon Owen (8.7 points per game) as the leading returning scorer.

First-year coach Garrett O'Donnell, who came over from Maret School in Washington D.C., said the Dragons lost six of their top seven players from last year. Still, he’s excited to see how this team progresses playing against high-level competition in the MIAA A Conference.

“I’m going to judge this year on effort and growth,” O'Donnell said. “We’ve got such a young and inexperienced group that I think everything that they see, they will be seeing for the first time. So when they see it the second and third time, will they be able to adapt, adjust and overcome it?”

The Dragons are off to a 2-2 start, which includes a 69-45 triumph against Chapelgate on Nov. 27. Owens, senior guard Dragan Hornatko and junior forward Chase Paar have been some of the top performers so far.

Chapelgate, which plays in the MIAA B Conference, is 2-3 so far as well with wins over Beth Tfiloh and Concordia Prep. Junior forward Odell Dickerson leads the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game, while senior guards Blake Hatcher and Jalen Morant are also averaging double figures.

With Hatcher and junior guard Cameron Heard back on the floor after missing last season with injuries, coach Frick Frierson believes the Yellowjackets will rely on their guard depth. They lost first-team all-county center Jason Murphy, who transferred to St. Frances in the offseason, but believe they’ll be able to make up for his scoring and rebounding production.

“Jason was a great player. He complimented our team a lot,” Hatcher said. “But I think we’re going to be a lot better team this year because we can speed up the game.”

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