Before the season, Howard Community College men's basketball coach Mike Smelkinson set the bar high. Coming off making it to the National Junior College Athletic Association DII championship tournament in 2012-13, Smelkinson thought his squad was ready for the next step and set his goals accordingly with sights on four separate championships.
As of Saturday: One down, three to go.
HCC earned a 105-94 victory over Southern Maryland in its regular season finale to finish 10-4 in Maryland Junior College Athletic Conference play. That record, combined with owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over Baltimore City and CCBC Dundalk, secured the Dragons their first Conference regular season crown in more than 20 years.
"We are a very-goal oriented team … we actually had all the guys sit down before the season and write down three team goals, three individual goals and three personal goals outside of basketball," Smelkinson said. "Almost everyone had getting back to Nationals and winning that tournament on their list, but before we got to that point we had to prepare ourselves. Aiming to win the MD-JUCO conference was a great starting point.
"Now that we have accomplished that first goal, we can refocus and gear up for the next one."
That next goal is winning the MD-JUCO Conference tournament, which kicks off this week. HCC, courtesy of its regular-season title, gets a bye through the play-in round into the quarterfinals on Friday.
Last year, the team won its play-in game before losing to Hagerstown.
This squad, though, has made a point of taking what was a good season last year and finding ways to build on it almost every step of the way so far.
"We have some key returners and some talented freshman, but more than anything there's a pride now when the guys step out on the court," Smelkinson said. "The expectations are higher and the level of focus going into each game is just on an entirely different level."
The Dragons don't feature a single player among the top 20 scorers in the conference, instead relying on a team-first approach that features four guys averaging between 10.3 and 15.1 points a night.
That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't talent.
Sophomores Kayode Ajenifuja and Jaz'mon Harris both average more than 14 points a game. In the regular season finale, the duo combined for 65 points while shooting 75 percent from the floor.
Right behind them is freshman Omari Ringgold, who was a first-team all-county star for Centennial High School in Howard County last winter and is averaging 13.8 points per game this year for the Dragons. His versatility as a 6-foot-3 swingman that is shooting 45 percent from 3-point range has made him one of the team's most valuable players as an every-game starter.
"As the season has progressed, he has gotten better and better, especially defensively," Smelkinson said.
Sophomores Jeff James (10.3 ppg) and Julian Davis (7.5) round out the team's traditional starting five.
But there's plenty of contributions coming from off the bench as well. Against Southern Maryland, for example, Myland Ward — who has played in less than half of the team's games this winter — produced seven points and eight rebounds to help secure the crucial victory.
"We stress playing as a team," Smelkinson said. "By working together, playing team defense and executing the game plan … that's how you beat teams that may be a little more talented."
On the road to this year's regular season title, a key six-game winning streak during the month of January turned out to be the difference. It was during that stretch that the HCC (10-4, 17-6) picked up its wins over Baltimore City (10-4, 14-12) and CCBC Dundalk (10-4, 19-5).
Aside from good play on the court during that time period, Smelkinson also credited the work off of it as being just as important.
"People don't talk about it, but I truly believe our January success is directly related to the success all of the guys have had in the classroom," he said. "A lot of JUCO players struggle academically and are ineligible to play during January, but we had eight guys get a 3.0 or better first semester and that allowed us to basically keep our whole team together."
It's building that kind of balanced program that Smelkinson takes particular pride in, as hard work in all aspects of life is the foundation he brought in with him when he took over as head coach three years ago.
Now he's hoping hard work can help the team achieve its final three goals this winter — winning championships at the MD JUCO tournament, NJCAA Region XX tournament and NJCAA DII tournament.
"When I recruit kids, I always tell them that I was the hardest worker when I was a player and that as a coach, I have that exact same mentality," Smelkinson said. "I explain to them that I want kids that are willing to push themselves. I feel like if we can work harder than everyone else in all aspects, winning will take care of itself."