North Carroll High School has closed, and the boys on the Freedom sixth grade travel basketball team will never play high school ball in that gym. But they will remember it anyway.
That’s because they’ve won their first basketball championship there.
Two weeks ago, Freedom beat the Elkridge Hurricanes 45-29 in the Carroll County Basketball League’s sixth grade division postseason tournament final. The win closed out an undefeated season for the new league champs.
In their first league season two years ago, the boys were around .500. Last year, they were above .500 and made it all the way to the postseason tournament final before getting knocked out.
Coach Joe Brown and his assistants, Bill Brown and Marcus Jackson, watched their Freedom team gradually improve during its first two years of play. They were reasonably optimistic as this season began.
It opened the season with three wins. Then, in the first week of January, it ran up against a tough opponent in Gamber.
“We beat them by nine points. That was a decent win because they are a good team,” Joe Brown said.
But so was Freedom.
“We were very well-balanced on offense,” he said. “We had tried to instill the fundamentals, and they were good both inside and outside. If (opponents) took away one thing, we’d get them with the other.”
And another thing.
Their coaches believed that playing good man-to-man defense was tantamount to their team’s success. And since those coaches wanted to prepare their players for high school where defense is very important, they made sure their kids could play it well.
Brown felt that the ability to play man-to-man was another big reason for his team’s domination. In learning to play it, the players also learned to use the press effectively. The coaches had taught them several variations of pressing defenses, and the ability to exert pressure won them a lot of games.
It would be critical in the championship game.
Freedom went 11-0 in the regular season. But many of those wins were hard fought.
“Our pattern of play was that we were a good-shooting team in the second half, and we came from behind a number of times,” Brown said.
However, he warned his players as the playoffs arrived.
“We were undefeated, but I told the kids that we were the team that everybody would come after,” he said. “They had to step up their game.”
They didn’t need to step up much in their playoff opener against Mount Airy. In that March 3 tournament opener, Freedom won by a landslide, 51-21.
Peyton Conrad led the winners with 11 points, Ben Chenowith added seven, and Alex Thompson along with Jackson Smith each had six. Point guard Aidan Bollweg helped move the offense. He had several assists and played a good defensive game to boot.
The second playoff game, a rematch with Gamber, was a true cliffhanger. It would take three overtimes for Freedom to pull it out. Freedom led by 10 points through much of regulation but Gamber recovered.
It hit a 3-point shot with seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game 27-27.
Freedom also led in the first two overtimes but Gamber kept recovering to force the game to continue. However foul trouble finally helped do in Gamber in that final OT.
“Their inside guy fouled out, and then we went inside,” Brown said.
Baskets by Conrad and Kyle Brent put Freedom ahead to stay, and they team went on the win the marathon thriller 39-34. Conrad led Freedom with 13 points. Brent added eight, mostly from the inside.
That left Elkridge, which had gone 10-1 to finish second in the regular season.
Elkridge also played in the Columbia Ravens Basketball League along with Freedom. Freedom had a solid 7-3 regular season in Columbia but Elkridge then knocked it out of this year’s Ravens League playoffs and the locals wanted some payback.
The game was very close almost the whole way. However, Elkridge had played a game immediately before, and after a foul-out, it was down to only six players.
“They were gassed,” Brown said.
He hoped to take advantage of that situation.
“It was even until the final five minutes of the game. But then we put on a different press, and that was their demise. We got seven steals and turnovers, and that led to easy baskets,” Brown recounted.
That spurt left the Howard County squad far behind at the end, belying the closeness of the game. The title was the first for Brown. Mason Hendricks led Freedom with 15 points. Cole Motter had four points and played well defensively.
Zach Jackson added four and held down Elkridge’s top scorer whose earlier big game had helped knock Freedom out of the Ravens League’s playoffs.
Bradley Brown scored four points and had some key steals during his team’s late fourth quarter break-out.
“It felt good to see the boys’ smiles and their excitement,” Brown said. “They put in a lot of work this year. They were thrilled to get two trophies together, one for finishing first and one for winning the tournament.”
And while Brown says they will play other sports in coming months, he fully expects most of them to come back to the team next basketball season. In any event, he knows where he will be.
“I’ll be coaching them again,” Brown said.