ELDERSBURG — Jess Littlejohn said her first year of high school basketball went well thanks to a lot of hard work, much of which took place over the last several years at the Steve Johnson Memorial Summer League.
Littlejohn, an incoming sophomore at Liberty High School, started participating in the league when she was a fifth-grader. Being able to play in the junior varsity division helped her hone her hoops skills, she said, so when tryouts for competitive basketball came around she was more prepared.
That’s what keeps Littlejohn, and many other Carroll County boys and girls basketball players, coming back to the annual summer event at Liberty High.
“You really develop our bond with our teammates and also get them better when they’re ready for high school,” said Littlejohn, a guard who helped Liberty defeat rival Century in the first of the Lions’ two games Monday night. “It’s an opportunity for me to know that I’m teaching them how to get better at basketball, but at the same time I’m developing my skills for my game.”
The girls summer league, led by Liberty varsity coach Barry Green, plays its varsity games on Mondays and JV games on Wednesdays. The boys league, guided by Lions varsity coach Brian Tombs, plays on Tuesdays (the boys don’t have a JV league this year).
Players and coaches from Francis Scott Key, Liberty, Manchester Valley, Westminster, and Winters Mill field boys teams this year; the girls league includes Century, FSK, Liberty, Man Valley, South Carroll, and Westminster.
The boys league started June 11 and has its playoff games set for July 9, while the girls began June 17 and finish with playoffs July 22. The league started about two decades ago, and was renamed in 2014 to honor former longtime Liberty boys coach Steve Johnson, who died in 2011.
Green, in his 10th year as league commissioner, said being able to coach his own players for a block of consecutive weeks during the summer pays off when varsity basketball begins. Players work on improving their skills, and in return, Green said, coaches get a more cohesive unit come November.
“In the business of team building, synergy is paramount,” Green said. “It is, in my opinion, what’s most important.”
Navigating through vacations and work schedules is always a challenge, Green said, but the goal is to seek improvement and see some quality competition along the way. The league’s girls circuit includes River Hill, the reigning Class 3A state champions, and an independent team based out of Howard County called the Blue Angels.
The boys league features Centennial, Glenelg, Marriotts Ridge, and Mount Hebron from Howard County, and Littlestown from just over the county border in Pennsylvania.
Sometimes players miss a week here and there, but Green said the league doesn’t falter with any absences.
“Fortunately for our summer league, it’s adaptable,” Green said. “You might have a team in Week 3 that’s very different than your team in Week 5. Usually your team that you have in Week 1 will change in some degrees by Week 2, but you have synergy.”
Demma Hall, an incoming junior at Century, agreed with her Carroll counterparts about the summer league’s purpose. Hall said she’s focused on getting better at driving to the basket on offense, which she hopes will translate into a more all-around game this winter.
“It gets a ball in my hand, and then if our whole team can get in there it just gets us more practice,” Hall said. “It’s really good to play offseason, so that really helps having a summer league to go to.”
Green said, with pride, that the SJMSL was filled to capacity for a fourth consecutive year. Games attract their share of spectators, despite less-than-comfortable conditions with Liberty’s air conditioning shut down for the summer. Big floor fans provide the air flow in the school’s main and auxiliary gymnasiums.
Games are made up of 20-minute halves, and it’s mostly running clock in order to get a healthy slate of contests in each night. The league uses regular high school officials as well.
It’s not an elite showcase, or Amateur Athletic Union tournament. But the league isn’t trying to be such an event — players and coaches seek improvement and unity, along with having a little fun being together at the same time.
“I really noticed my ball handling has come along, with Coach Green’s help with the drills that we do in open gym, and then putting that into the game to get stronger,” Littlejohn said. “I feel like I did pretty well in that aspect because I was so used to going to the open gyms, working out with Coach Green … I feel pretty comfortable going into this season by doing this summer league.”