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Climbing the mountain

Long Reach boys basketball coach Al Moraz, Jr. has faced some stern tests in his three years guiding the Lightning, but today's 3 p.m. meeting with top-ranked Lake Clifton in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Administration's Class 3A state semifinal at Comcast Center might be the toughest.

The Lakers (25-1) have superior height inside as well as talented guards who will pressure Long Reach (24-2) all over the floor, all of which could make for a long day for Long Reach.

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"It's a big challenge," said Moraz, Jr. "We feel we're going to do our thing and hopefully limit them to one shot and keep them off the board and try to maybe take some charges and maybe stir it up a little bit, kind of like we did against Aberdeen (in the East regional final)."

But then, Long Reach, which won the 3A title two years, has conquered challenges, not the least of which is bringing a level of respect to Howard County basketball, which is seeking its third straight title, with River Hill having won the 3A championship last year before moving to 2A this year.

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"Obviously, it's the city teams, and probably some Baltimore County teams and then Prince George's County in the D.C. area," said Moraz, Jr. "You probably don't think of Howard County as a highly respected league. I think it's starting slowly but surely to erase a little bit in people's minds. We just work extremely hard to raise the level of play and earn some respect for the county."

The Lightning, which has won 14 straight games, has only two players back from its state title run two years ago, leading scorer and rebounder senior forward Obi Ukwuoma and junior forward Julius Fambro. But they have a picture of the championship squad hanging in the school gym to draw strength from.

"We've used that a little bit as motivation with the picture in the gym and how sweet it would be not only to get back there, but to make some noise again," said Moraz, Jr. "It's kind of been flying under the radar. We're fine with that. You've got a lot of teams that have a lot of talent and a lot of athletes, but we're working hard. We've got a great team chemistry. They're believing in each other. The main thing is, they're focused and listening to what we're trying to get across. We're just playing great team ball."

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