On the surface, the Howard County Elite eighth grade team appeared to be in over their heads.
Playing up an age group in this year's American Youth Basketball Tour National Tournament, an event the team had only won half its games in a year earlier in its own age bracket, HC Elite seemingly had its hands full when it headed out to Fort Wayne, Ind. July 18-21.
Luckily, though, the games aren't played on paper.
Continuing what has been an extremely successful year for the team, HC Elite went a perfect 9-0 and walked away with this year's AYBT 9th grade National Championship. After winning all six of its games in pool play, the team capped its run through the single elimination playoffs with a 52-50 victory over a local rival, the 9th grade Howard County Sharks, in the championship.
"We're a small team, but a well-balanced team with guys who don't mind playing their role," said coach Bill Napolitano, who has now helped guide this group to victories in 28 consecutive games.
It's because of that recent string of success leading up to the tournament that Napolitano said the decision was made to play up.
"We've been winning at our own age group in the past year or so, so as a result we play up periodically and I thought it would be an appropriate level of competition for this tournament," he said.
"We didn't necessarily go in expecting to win, but we knew we would be competitive."
Napolitano added that when the team played in the top 9th grade division at last month's East Coast AYBT Regionals they also were crowned champions with a 9-0 record, giving the team confidence heading out to Indiana.
But for this group, this summer's success isn't something that just happened overnight. Of the eight players on the championship HC Elite squad, five are from Howard County. And the team's three core county players, Tom Brown, Matt Bernetti and Daniel Kiely, have been playing together since the fourth grade.
The other two local players, Donovan Pines and Dylan Dubeau, have been important pieces for several years as well.
It's all added up to a squad that plays off one another extremely well, showcased by the team having seven different players lead the way in scoring during the nine tournament games.
"We have a very unselfish group, which helps tremendously with team chemistry, trust in each other and composure in tough situations," Napolitano said.
There were some tough tests along the way to the AYBT National title, including a semifinal contest against Team Hype from Michigan that came down to the final seconds. Thanks, though, to a game-high 17 points from Kiely, along with strong games from Bernetti (15 points) and Pines (11), HC Elite escaped with a 59-54 win.
That set up a match-up in the finals against a Howard County Sharks team that featured two local guys, Gary Sandler (River Hill) and Matt Hammert (Glenelg), who were starters on their varsity teams last winter. And for the majority of the game the two squads were extremely evenly matched, with neither team leading by more than six points.
In the end, however, HC Elite was just a little too much and held on for the two-point championship victory thanks to some clutch foul shooting. Gianni Pescetto led the scoring effort with 14 points, highlighted by two key foul shots with less than six seconds to play.
Going forward, the tournament schedule will only get tougher for HC Elite as opportunities to play in even more high profile events are on the horizon in the next few years. And if you ask Napolitano, who just two years ago coached the Elite U-17 squad that went down to Orlando and finished third at the AAU National Championships, there's definitely the potential for something special with this team.
"Honestly, right now, they're better at this point than the other team was," Napolitano said. "They're not as athletic, but their basketball IQ is amazing. I think they really look up to the older guys and what they accomplished, but they also know that they are exceeding what that team did. They've come a long way in a short period of time."