When the Howard Community College men's basketball team started competing in the Maryland Junior College Athletic Association three seasons ago, its coach, Wheeler Brown, said one could count its fans on two hands. And that included the athletic director and the players' parents.
But as this season approaches, Brown is expecting at least 200 fans at every home game of the Express.
The third-year basketball coach is sending a message to area highschool recruits: the men's basketball program at HCC is to be taken seriously.
Seven area recruits believed him.
"I now think the kids see the seriousness of the program," Brown said. "I think the kids who have come here see the positives. They say. 'Howard is not a bad place to go to school and play basketball.' The guys are seeing an opportunity to showcase themselves."
Leading the standout class isAtholton grad Jermaine Reynolds, a 6-foot-5 center and All-County player who averaged 17 points per game his senior year in high school and will play power forward for HCC.
Additional inside strength will come from Howard High School grad Ermundo Russell, a 6-foot-5 center, and 6-foot-4 power forward Chris Williams from Hammond High.
"Right after the season (mid-March), he was out recruiting with shirt and tie on," sophomore Paul Graham said of Brown. Graham averaged 17 points per game playing guard last season and is being recruited by Loyola College and Fordham University. "It's hard to find coaches that do that. He still is talking to kids this summer."
Since Brown hadno assistant last year to help him, he did all the recruiting himself.
Brown, a Baltimore resident, landed two point guards: 5-foot-10Howard High grad P.J. Curry and Mount Hebron All-County selection Derek Dorsey.
"This will be the best recruiting class here in three years," Brown said. "In the past we had to depend on kids who didn't have high school experience or who have been out of high school a couple of years."
HCC also added two small forwards: Randy Miller, from Wilde Lake, who averaged 18.5 points per game last year, and 6-foot-1 Andre Johnson from Mount Hebron.
"I think we won't see the full benefits for this recruiting class until a year from now," Brown said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of the kids cracked the starting lineup before the end of the season."
Brown's recruiting starts in November, when he reads the local papers to identify the top-rated basketball players in the county.
He also watches each county team play at least three games.
In January, Brown sent lettersto all the county high school coaches, letting them know he was recruiting.
During February and March, Brown contacted prospective recruits.
And, from April through the summer, he continued to contactpotential players and get commitments from them.
"He has had a tremendous recruiting year, to the point where he is getting referrals from other schools," HCC Athletic Director Tom Carbotti said. "He hasn't left a stone unturned in recruiting county students."
Despite having no athletic scholarships to offer, Brown has only lost two county recruits to Catonsville and Frederick community colleges, both ofwhich offer scholarships.
The team finished with a 15-15 record last year. It lost eight players because of poor grades after the first semester, but five returned to the lineup after taking intersessioncourses during January.
The team has four starters returning, tworeturning substitutes, three transfer students and other talented players coming out for the team.
The three transfer students are expected to vie for starting jobs next fall: John Delarue, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound center-forward who attended the University of Florida last year on an academic scholarship; Brian Muir, a 6-foot-7 245-pound center-forward from a Texas junior college; and Howard High grad Woody Nicholson, who transferred from Salem Teikyo University in West Virginia in 1990 but sat out last school year to concentrate on academics.
Wheeler described Muir as an "impact player." Delarue, he said, hasoutstanding "attitude and desire, but needs to improve his footwork and low-post game."
Brown has five of his recruits and six other team members playing an 11-game schedule in the Urban Coalition SummerBasketball league, considered one of the best for college and pro players in the country, at Dunbar High School in Washington.
The Express will compete against such NBA players this summer as Miami Heat guard Sherman Douglas, Philadelphia 76ers center Manute Bol, Charlotte Hornets guard Muggsy Bogues and Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis.
Brown said the Express was outstanding in a 116-108 loss July 5 toa squad of Division I and II players from Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia and James Madison University.
"I think our confidence level will rise," Brown said. "If the kids feel they can compete with this group, then it will be easier to compete on the JUCO level."