Hammond boys basketball coach Jack Burke credits his players and plays down his role.
But Hammond's emergence this season from an inexperienced group of mostly unknown players into a county co-championship team ranks as one of the more remarkable coaching jobs in county history.
Burke, The Baltimore Sun's Howard County Boys Basketball Coach of the Year, won his first county championship after finishing as runner-up six of the previous seven years.
He also ended a nine-game losing streak to nemesis Oakland Mills. The victory clinched the county title.
This season was quite a turnaround at Hammond. The 1991-92 season was Burke's worst in his eight years as head coach. The team had an 8-14 record and lost five games by a total of 13 points.
He had only one proven player (Kris Jefferson) back from that team, and Burke's preseason outlook was not optimistic.
"Every season before the first game, I secretly write down what I think our record will be at the end of the year," Burke said. "I'm usually correct within a game or two, and this year, I wrote down 6-15."
Instead, the Bears went 15-9 overall and 10-4 in the league, sharing the county title with preseason co-favorite Centennial. Only an upset in the last league game by Howard prevented Hammond from winning the title outright.
No wonder Burke had his early doubts. The starting team was young. In that title-clinching Oakland Mills victory, Hammond started freshman Irving Conwell, sophomore Mike Matthews, junior James Fehrman and seniors Claude Moore and Kelvin Stevens. Only Stevens had appreciable varsity playing time the year before, and he had had a disappointing season.
Somehow Burke orchestrated the inexperienced talent into a team that went at least nine deep and was willing to do anything it took to win. It won with defense and rebounding -- two of the less glamorous aspects of basketball for many players.
A player as good as Jefferson was willing to submerge his ego and come off the bench to act as a spark plug. Jefferson still played most of every game and was the team's go-to guy at the end of games.
But big efforts were spread out among many different players.
Senior Jason Myatt, cut as a junior, came through several times with big efforts. Seniors Sean Drinan and Cinque Crutchfield were dangerous long-range shooters who made some key contributions. Stevens blossomed into a leader and exceptional
Because of a Wednesday/Friday schedule most of the season that left little time to prepare for Friday's games, the team practiced immediately after its Wednesday games several times.
"We had nice kids who worked hard, and none of them was an underachiever," Burke said. "It helped having eight seniors, most of whom had lived through a disastrous season. It cut down on our mistakes late in games."
Burke, 37, a graduate of Howard High and Frostburg State, teaches social studies and history at Hammond. He lives in Severna Park with his wife and two children.
Burke credits former Hammond head coach Mike Mongelli, Burke's former assistant coach Al Moraz and his current assistant coach Dana Beszczynski for much of his success.
"I've always been surrounded by great people," Burke said.