When Ryan Davis and Jaden Martin worked out together in the fall of 2016, it held little significance aside from two juniors looking to further their impact on their respective high school basketball programs.
After starting on varsity his first two seasons at River Hill, Martin was ready to take on more of a leadership role as an upperclassman. However, after making the region final Martin's freshman year, the Hawks plummeted to the bottom of the county standings in the 2015-16 campaign, finishing 5-16 overall. Martin played 17 games, but also missed time due to a high ankle sprain.
Davis watched Martin compete whenever River Hill and Glenelg played from the sidelines, as he spent his first two seasons at the junior varsity level. That winter would likely mark his first season as a varsity contributor.
Davis' former high school coach, David Evans, was friends with Martin's dad, Kerry, which led to Davis and Martin going through drills together at Glenelg High School one afternoon in 2016. Davis noticed Martin's physicality, his ability to drive to the basket and his ball handling skills. In Davis, Martin saw an athletic forward with unrealized potential.
"You could see he could be good, but he didn't really have the confidence," Martin said. "And I think this year, coming into it as a senior, that confidence just kicked in and he just took off."
"I knew he was good," Martin added, "but it never crossed my mind that he would get this good."
Martin and Davis wowed opposing coaches as seniors this season. River Hill coach Matt Graves called Martin "the nucleus" of a team that won its first region title since 2007 and he became just the third player in program historyto score 1,000 career points. Davis morphed from a role player into a double-double machine, his best performances coming against top county competition.
Nevertheless, their dominance yielded the same final result: Howard County Times/Columbia Flier boys basketball Co-Player of the Year.
"I remember sitting at the kitchen table in [early January] and seeing that he had 17 points and 17 rebounds … and I was just amazed, like how is that possible," Martin said of Davis, referencing his stat line against Wilde Lake on Jan. 3. "He's a great player. Playing against him was an honor, and I'm glad to share it with him."
"I've always respected him as a player because he was on varsity all four years," Davis said of Martin. "That was actually one of my main targets this year, knowing that one, it was River Hill, they're big games anyway. And then having a fourth-year returning varsity player, I'd have to go at him, and so it was always really competitive."
Along with Wilde Lake guard Trea Keys, who won Player of the Year last season as a sophomore, Martin seemed like the best bet to win the award entering the 2017-18 campaign. Martin was a returning first-team All-County guard for the reigning county champions, who also happened to return their entire starting lineup and regular rotation. The other names on that first-team list either graduated, transferred (Chapelgate center Jason Murphy) or got hurt (Long Reach forward Tre Morgan).
Plus, Martin's career trajectory lent itself to emerging as a Player of the Year candidate his senior year.
Martin started on varsity his freshman season, serving as a regular contributor on a team led by Charlie Thomas — the Player of the Year in 2015. His sophomore year did not unfold as intended, Martin said, but his injury troubles only further drove him to up his production as an upperclassman. And with formidable returning pieces and promising JV call-ups joining him, Martin was confident they could return River Hill to county relevancy.
The Hawks accomplished that and more during the 2016-17 season, riding a lengthy midseason winning streak to the program's first county championship since 2002. Martin led the team in scoring at 14.5 points per game and reached double-digit points in 21 of 23 games.
But the 6-foot-2 bruiser of a guard also posted career highs in rebounds, assists and steals — numbers that would carry into his senior campaign.
"He took the leadership role to another "level this year and just did a little bit of everything," Graves said. "He led our team in assists, steals, scoring. He did a lot of things — and some things didn't show up on the stat sheet — to help us win."
Martin passed the credit on to his teammates. Senior guard Jacob Krause emerged as a reliable No. 2 scorer, while Luke Champion's offensive versatility posed problems for opponents and gave Martin fits in practice. And Martin maintains no one guarded him harder this year than teammate Brendan McKenna.
These daily battles prepared Martin to take another step forward this season. He finished sixth in the county in scoring (15.9 points per game), averaged 3.1 assists and 2.2 steals and shot an impressive 136 free throws.
And with Martin leading the way, River Hill won a share of the county title with Oakland Mills, which it beat in the playoffs to advance to the 2A South Region final. There, Martin scored 18 points, and the Hawks overcame a halftime deficit to beat Thomas Stone, 61-51, for just the second region title in program history.
Despite falling to North Caroline in the final four, the deep postseason run was a fitting ending for Martin, who will go down as one of the winningest players in program history.
"He's going to be a tough kid to lose because he does so many things for us," Graves said. "But at the same time, I'm looking forward to seeing who that next kid is that might remind me of a Varun Ram, a Michael Campanaro, a Tommy Brenton, a Charlie Thomas and now a Jaden Martin."
After the seaspn, Martin made his commitment official to play at Division III Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.
And as it turns out, Martin and his Player of the Year counterpart will be playing college basketball in the same state. On April 11, Davis signed his National Letter of Intent to play at Division II Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
It signified a surreal accomplishment for a player who, at 5-foot-8, wasn't even sure if he would make junior varsity his freshman year.
"This guy is a self-made player, man, he worked his tail off," said Tim Miller, who coached Davis the past two seasons on Maryland 3D, an AAU program based out of Severn. "Every morning in the gym, he's shooting, he's on the gun shooting, he's lifting weights. He's just improved so dramatically it's crazy."
Davis did end up making the JV team, and he stood at 6-foot-2 after his sophomore year, but he still had yet to play at the varsity level halfway through his high school career. As a junior, Davis received that opportunity and finished the year tied for fourth on the team in scoring at 5.8 points per game. While a modest total, it did little to suggest he would grow into one of the county's top players.
Still, the potential had always been there. Miller saw a "long, raw athlete" the first time he watched Davis work out in the spring after his sophomore season.
And by the next summer, that potential was coming to fruition. In addition to playing in AAU tournaments, Davis ratcheted up his individual workout routine by practicing two to three times per week with Glenelg coach Jansen McMillan. McMillan would have Davis start by shooting close-range shots to improve his shooting form. Then he took layups to further warm up. Afterwards, Davis used the shooting machine to make 25 shots from five different mid-range spots on the floor. Once he accomplished that, he'd go through the same process from behind the 3-point line.
"I would end up putting up about 1,000 to 1,500 shots every day I was one the gun," Davis said. "I would also do a lot of skill work and attacking the basket to work on finishing strong at the rim from both sides."
His improvement was drastic, so much so that as the summer AAU circuit wound down, Miller and McMillan placed lofty expectations on Davis. "You'll be the best player in the county," they told Davis if he continued to develop at his current rate. "Player of the Year is yours if you want it."
That's because after a relatively slow start — Davis combined to score 10 points his first three contests — he turned into one of the top scorers in the county. He totaled at least 17 points the next six games, including the aforementioned 17-and-17 game against Wilde Lake and a 25-point, 10-rebound, five-steal effort versus River Hill. He would go on to score 23 points and grab 17 rebounds in a win over Centennial, a game in which he forced overtime with a buzzer-beating fadeaway 3-pointer. He then exploded for 30 points against Marriotts Ridge on Feb. 2.
Davis finished this season as the county's No. 2 scorer at 16.5 points per game and added 10.7 rebounds per contest. He had 16 double-doubles, while shooting 37 percent from three-point range. His breakout campaign helped Glenelg finish fifth in the county standings and 13-11 overall.
"He put in countless hours from March to the start of the season, playing for us on the AAU circuit with Maryland 3D." McMillan said, "Being one of the guys who was on the bottom and then just each month, he would slowly keep climbing with his skills, being able to play against top-notch competition during the summer with the circuit. And he put in a lot of time on his own, waking up at six in the morning, shooting late at night, listening, and just actually wanting to get better every day."
Daeshawn Eaton, Oakland Mills. Eaton led the county in scoring this season at 17.1 points per game, but that only begins to tell the story of the junior guard's impact for the co-league champions.
"He rebounds the ball exceptionally well for a guard," coach Jon Browne said. Eaton's 6.3 rebounding average was the second-highest total on the team.
He also tallied a team-high 4.2 assists and 2.9 steals per game. He shot 161 free throws, more than 6.7 attempts per game, and finished the season with a 79 percent conversion rate. With his calm demeanor and his innate ability to get to the rim, Eaton quietly stuffed the stat sheet for the Scorpions. He served as the centerpiece of a team that finished the regular season on an eight-game county winning streak to spoil River Hill's chance at an outright county crown.
"He's a very quiet kid — I'm hoping we can get him out of that shell — but his game speaks for itself," Browne said. "We had a lot of pieces this year, and it was an "interesting dynamic, but he was kind of the glue that held us all together."
Trea Keys, Wilde Lake. Keys was not able to sneak up on anyone this season, following the type of campaign he put together as a sophomore. After moving up to varsity before the playoffs his freshman season, he exploded onto the county scene a year ago.
He led the league in points per game (18.6), propelled the Wildecats to an appearance in the regional final, and, perhaps most notably, was recognized as the Howard County Times boys basketball Player of the Year.
With that honor came more publicity, more pressure and more defenders trying to shut Keys down, and coach Deon Wingfield said it took the junior guard some time to adjust. But by season's end, Keys' numbers were still some of the best in the county.
While Wilde Lake finished 9-13 overall, Keys averaged a team-high 16.0 points and led the Wildecats in assists and steals. He still took over games, like when he dropped 32 points in a 58-54 win over Marriotts Ridge on Dec. 13. In 22 games, he scored in double digits in all but five.
"It can be difficult when you go from under the radar to the guy," Wingfield said. "But overall, his IQ helped him to get to that level as being a first-teamer."
Jacob Krause, River Hill. In his third season on varsity, Krause grew into an integral part ofa River Hill team that won its first regional title in more than a decade. Krause averaged 13.1 points per game — the second-highest mark on the team behind Co-Player of the Year Jaden Martin — and he did so in a variety of ways. He shot 38 percent from beyond the arc, yet also shot nearly 80 free throws and made 86.1 percent of them. His two best scoring performances came during the first week in January, when he scored 21 points in back-to-back games in wins over Glenelg and Oakland Mills.
"He's fantastic," Browne said after the Scorpions' 68-58 loss. "He knocks it down, he gets to the rim, the floaters always go, the kiss off the glass. He can do it all, man. He's really fun to watch. He's a nightmare to play against. I just really like his game."
After River Hill beat Oakland Mills again in the playoffs, Krause sparked the Hawks' second-half surge in the regional final against Thomas Stone. His 16 points went a long way to ensuring the Hawks clinched the program's first final four appearance since 2007.
"His size, you would think 'OK, we can contain him, we can do what we want," Hawks coach Matt Graves said. "But he's deceivingly quick with the ball, and he knows how to score inside of the arc. Just him being a threat on the court with Jaden [Martin] and Luke [Champion] made a huge difference with us making that run to the state semis for sure."
Josh Odunowo, Reservoir. After spending last season on junior varsity, Odunowo quickly became one of the top two-way big men in the county for 2017-18. He swatted 4.4 shots per game and ripped down rebounds at both ends of the floor, helping him secure an average of nearly nine boards per game.
He also grew into one of the team's more consistent scorers as the season progressed, getting his points either with a post move, in transition or on the offensive glass.
"There were a handful of games that he just kind of took over, and it was really more so from a defensive standpoint," Gators coach Mike Coughlan said. "His defense would always get his offense going for sure."
Still, Coughlan sees plenty of room for Odunowo to expand his offensive game and potentially become a dominant inside presence on that side of the floor as a senior next season.
Brandon Prox, Mt. Hebron. Prox has shown ample ability to score since entering the Mt. Hebron starting lineup as a freshman three seasons ago. He averaged 12 points a game as a sophomore and was the team's leading scorer early this season. However, his offensive production did not translate to wins, as the Vikings started the season 3-7.
So, after Christmas break, coach Mike Linsenmeyer and his staff challenged Prox, already a dangerous 3-point shooter, to start performing like the Player of the Year. "Win us games," Linsenmeyer told him.
From that point on, Linsenmeyer saw Prox amplify his level of play on both sides of the court, and that's when Mt. Hebron started winning games. The Vikings won seven of their last nine county contests, including victories over River Hill and Oakland Mills, to finish above .500 in league play. Then they crushed Reservoir to reach the sectional final in the state playoffs.
All the while, Prox was having unheralded success from behind the arc. In addition to averaging 16.4 points per game, good for third best in the county, he made 79 3-pointers — the most by a Howard County public school player in the last 10 years. His importance also stretched to the defensive end, where he averaged 3.3 steals per game.
"He refused to be denied," Linsenmeyer said. "He had to work hard to get open, because obviously everybody knew that he could shoot, and he was willing to do that. He played really good defense also and was a really good teammate, and that's why we had a really good run this year."