As the lone returning all-county player for a Centennial team coming off the first state championship season in program history, Tom Brown knew that the load on his shoulders was going to be heavier than ever this winter.
He was ready.
The senior forward, now in his third year as a starter for the Eagles, has been as consistent as any player in Howard County this season. He's scored 12 or more points in all 13 of Centennial's games — something no other player in the league can claim — on his way to scoring an average of 18.8 points a contest and helping the team to a 9-4 overall record thus far.
It's a younger group this season for the program, featuring several sophomores playing prominent roles, but Brown says the expectations and goals remain the same. The team is hungry and determined to get back to states.
The Eagles' captain recently took some time out of his busy schedule to sit down and discuss the season so far, the positives and negatives of being a multi-sport athlete, his close relationship with his teammates, and the key to another postseason run.
Coming into this year, after winning a state title and reaching that ultimate prize, did it feel like the bar was set higher than ever for you guys?
I think it was at a high level, but it's a different team and that's what we've been saying all year. We have to create our own mark because it's not the same team as last year. The nice thing is that everyone is stepping up, even with having a couple tough games, we have stayed strong and recovered from all of them. We are growing stronger as a team every day I feel like.
You mention the tough games and you guys have played more games decided by one possession — six — than any other county team. Does that wear on the team at all?
Every year you are going to have close games, probably not as many as we've had so far, but as a senior you know what's coming down the stretch in games. You have to keep the ball under control, hit free throws … those are things you try to help the younger kids with. Honestly, though, I feel like the more tough situations we get put in, the better prepared we will be for playoffs.
As a senior leader this year, after graduating the kind of talent you guys did, has it been different at all for you personally?
I've definitely been more aggressive this year, going to the basket more. But I always say that I can't do what I do without the help of my teammates. They get the ball to me in good situations where I can get easy lay-ups. I don't have to force anything. Really, for me, my focus is on getting that inside presence and being as consistent as I can be.
Over the course of your basketball career, is there anything you've worked on that you think has helped you reach this point?
Being able to dribble the ball. I'm 6-foot-5 and when I can bring the ball up that's something that creates mismatches. That versatility is a huge part of my game and I think that's what allows me to help the team in a lot of different ways, not just scoring.
How early did you start working on that part of your game?
My AAU coach, Coach (Bill Napolitano), always stressed on me that I had to be able to be a ball handler. So I played point guard all the way from third grade through this summer. He really got me going on that path and didn't let me settle for just being a big man just because I was bigger than everyone else.
Have you started putting any thought into college plans?
I've talked to a few schools … mostly DIII, with a little DII interest, but I don't really know right now. I'm still figuring things out. Definitely want to play basketball at the next level, though. I love playing. The schools that have contacted me are all really good, so there are opportunities.
What are college coaches saying they would like to see from you to help your prospects?
Probably that I need to get a little quicker and work on my perimeter defense. At 6-foot-5 in college, you are really more of a wing player, so getting quicker is really big. Soccer season I think really helped, as I lost like 10 pounds through the season.
Speaking of soccer, I know that was a sport you played growing up but decided not to play last year as a junior. What went into your decision to come back out this fall, as you ended up having a big year and making second-team all-county?
Junior year I really wanted to just focus on basketball and getting in the right mindset coming into the season. Sophomore year I feel like playing both sports was a real wear on my body and I just couldn't handle it. But this year, I talked to (Michael) Merkey and he talked me into playing. And I think it's something I wanted to do anyway because I knew it would help me with basketball and I knew my body could handle it now. Merkey definitely played a role in that, though, and now I get to have him for basketball season.
It seems like you, Merkey and EJ Fowler are all really close — being key pieces on both the soccer and basketball teams. How far back do you guys go and how much has sports brought you closer?
We are with each other every day pretty much, so you really get a close bond through that. It's like we've always been there for each other and sports is definitely a big part of that. EJ and I started playing soccer together in second grade, we actually played against Merk who was going to a different elementary school. So we've known each other forever, but I guess freshman year soccer season was when the three of us all really got close.
How far back does your personal history with sports go?
I actually swam when I was three all the way up through seventh grade (Columbia Clippers and Wilde Lake Watercats). Soccer I started when I was five and then basketball was like when I was eight maybe. So I've been around sports all my life basically.
In terms of this season, what do you feel like is the "X" factor for you guys in terms of reaching that next level again?
I'd say knocking down free throws, which we've been struggling with but have been getting better with as the year has gone on, and just continually getting experience for our sophomores and juniors. They've been getting a ton of playing time and really stepping into bigger and bigger roles.
You've said multiple times that this year's team is different than last year, but do you see signs of a team capable of repeating?
Yeah, definitely. We've got strong pieces on both offense and defense that seem to be getting better and better every day. It's different in the sense that we were further along at the beginning of last year, but you can see that we are starting to reach that level. This is a special, special team that I really believe is capable of great things.