Phil Booth gets the basketball at the top of the key and, in a flash, practice at Mount St. Joseph comes to a halt.
The reason? Kameron Williams is poised in front of him, inches away.
The floor is spread, and the Gaels' two star guards are set to go one-on-one.
Gripping the ball with both hands, Booth swings it slowly, left to right, right to left, a human pendulum set to burst.
A second later, he drives to the right with an explosive first step that shakes Williams, giving Booth a clear path to the basket for an easy layup.
They are keeping score (Williams had his share in the grinding 20-minute session), and as Booth heads down to the other end, he gestures to the assistant coach in charge of the tab to put up his two points.
"Every bucket counts," Booth says. "Every one means something -- it's always a battle between us."
Mount St. Joseph coach Pat Clatchey enjoys the daily clashes between his two standouts -- Williams, a 6-foot-3 senior, and Booth, a 6-4 junior. From a pure basketball standpoint, he says watching them go head-to-head is a pleasure. But the veteran coach is quick to add: "I enjoy even more that they are on the same team and playing for us."
That fact -- Williams and Booth side by side -- is the biggest reason why Mount St. Joseph is The Baltimore Sun's No. 1 team going into the season and primed for strong championship runs in the Baltimore Catholic League and Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference.
"When you're up against one really good player, you can run double teams to counter. But it's hard to run doubles against Mount St. Joseph because you're inevitably leaving someone open who can make a play," Calvert Hall coach John Bauersfeld said. "Kam and Phil are two guys with such good game sense, and they react so well to adverse situations, it's really tough to match up with them. So you kind of have to guard them straight up and hope for the best."
With each season they've played together -- this will be their third on varsity -- they've added layers to their respective games, while also effectively meshing to help bring home victories.
Williams, who has committed to play at Ohio State, can score from anywhere and does so with panache. He wants to take the big shot, and the confidence he brings to the court never leaves. Last season, he averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists to lead the Gaels to the BCL championship and an appearance in the MIAA A title game.
In earning All-Metro second-team honors last season, Booth, who has a growing list of Division I offers, including from Indiana, Georgetown and Maryland, showed how many different ways he can impact a game in his breakthrough sophomore season. Averaging 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game, he scored important baskets, handled the ball, grabbed the big rebound, blocked the late shot and hit clutch free throws.
"You see what they do on the court and how hard they push each other, and it just makes everybody on the team work that much harder to become better," Mount St. Joseph senior forward Charlie Jones said.
Last season's run to the program's fourth BCL championship showed off their ability to close out games.
In a tightly contested semifinal win, 54-49, over Archbishop Spalding, Booth scored 10 of his team-high 19 points in a pivotal third quarter that brought the Gaels back. He then added a blocked shot in the final minute to secure the win. In the 52-39 win over John Carroll for the championship, Williams had three fouls in the first half, and the Gaels trailed by 9 points at the break. But Williams stayed on course, hitting key 3-pointers in each of the quarters in the second half in a 52-39 win.
Williams finished with 17 points and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Mostly reserved off the court, he goes to the gym instead of just hanging out every day. He works on his weaknesses and polishes his strengths with constant repetition. While some players may shy away from the big moments on the court, Williams relishes them because he knows he has prepared for them.
"Prime time is when the great players make their name," he said. "My Dad always tells me if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and there's no better feeling than doing it in the final minute to put the team in the best possible position to win."
Booth also has put in time during the offseason to improve his skills, and the little things that add up to winning games are what he works on the most.
"Phil has matured tremendously as a player since last year," Clatchey said. "He's a much more determined defender and rebounder. His game is just so complete and versatile. He can help a team win in so many ways."
With Jones also bringing versatile skills up front, fellow guard Jaylen Adams in line for a breakthrough season and strong supporting players well aware of their respective roles, the Gaels know they have all the goods needed for a successful season.
"With our talent, we can do some great things this year," Booth said. "We just have to keep working hard to put it all together and come out with wins."
In his 21st season coaching the Gaels, Clatchey has had plenty of fine guards come through, most recently two-time BCL Player of the Year Eric Atkins, who now starts in college at Notre Dame. This year, however, brings a rare combination.
"We've had some really good guards, but two of this caliber at the same time is rare and extremely rewarding," Clatchey said. "Two standout guards like this, I guess you can say both of them are like pizza -- two slices are much better than one."
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