The Howard Community College men's basketball team has two goals for its first national tournament appearance this week at the State University of New York at Delhi.
The first is to place higher than fellow Division III, District V representative Montgomery-Germantown did the past two seasons. The Griffins were seventh of eight schools last year and eighth in 1991.
The second goal is to win two games. That would result in a No. 4 ranking nationally in Division III with a 23-6 record.
"We are not satisfied with just being there," said Howard coach Wheeler Brown, who has guided the Express to a 79-37 record in four seasons.
"We have a goal in mind that we want to finish in the top three. We are shooting for that. But if we are playing the kind of basketball we are capable of, then I think we can play with anyone.
"And we feel like the last couple of years, the team representing the district didn't do that well. We hope we can be a better indication of the kind of basketball that's played in the region. I think we are peaking at the right time as opposed to last year. We started out fast last season and amassed a lot of wins. Consequently, the kids' legs were dead by the end of the season."
Howard (which has won 17 of its past 19) faces sixth-ranked Community College of Rhode Island (21-8), a team that relies on the three-point shot, full-court press and up-tempo offense, at 1 p.m. today. Rhode Island finished third in the nationals last year and second in 1991.
If the Express gets by Rhode Island, it might play top-ranked Sullivan County CC (32-0) of Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., in the second round. Sullivan, the defending national champion on a a 68-game winning streak, faces Minneapolis CC today.
"I think we are one of the favorites," said Howard sophomore point guard Brian Parker, who ranks second in Division III in scoring (27.5 points) and averages 9.5 assists. Parker, a first-team all-Region XX selection, has attracted interest from nine schools, including Towson State and UMBC.
"The only team I really want to play is Sullivan. I feel we are playing like champs, but we could step our game up a couple of notches," he said.
Said Brown: "Everybody is focused on the first game, but if the opportunity presents itself, you want to see how you stack up against the best. You always look at it as a challenge to play the No. 1 team. Everybody is excited about the possibility of playing them."
The Express stepped up its game a couple of notches in the Region XX tournament last month. Howard trailed Columbus State CC (Ohio), ranked as high as sixth nationally earlier this season, by 12 points in a first-round game Feb. 26 with five minutes remaining.
But the Express rallied to win, 70-68, on reserve forward/center Damon Sterling's winning basket with 10 seconds left.
Howard defeated Montgomery-Germantown, 95-78, Feb. 27 in the championship game of the Region XX tournament to advance to the national tournament. One week earlier, top seed Howard lost to Prince George's CC, 104-86, in the first round of the Maryland JuCo tournament.
"Last year, we worked hard all year, made it to the finals of the Region XX tournament and lost," said Howard shooting guard Damion Sewell, who averages 18.8 points and 5.5 assists.
Last season, the Express lost to Montgomery-Germantown by three points in the Region XX tournament. Two weeks before that game, Howard had beaten Montgomery-Germantown by 25 points.
"This year we worked harder and it finally paid off," Sewell said. "We beat Germantown this year, so it makes it extra special going to the national tournament."