Howard Community College's men's basketball team is ranked first in the National Junior College Athletic Association preseason Division III poll.
The Iron Horse Express finished third in the national Division III tournament last season after winning the Region XX tournament. The Express compiled a final 25-7 record but won the National Division of the Maryland JuCo league with a 19-1 mark.
Coach Wheeler Brown says this year's team might be his best since he took over the program in 1989.
"This is the first time I've had this kind of quality in returning players, and the quality of our depth is superior to last season," he said.
HCC graduated leading scorer and All-American Brian Parker, but returns five players while picking up some outstanding newcomers.
"We used quickness and speed last year, but this year we'll have strength also," Brown said.
HCC lost three of its first four games last season, so Brown is hoping for a faster start when his team opens the season tomorrow at the Sullivan County (Pa.) Community College Tournament.
"This will be our toughest schedule yet, but all of our players are pretty good athletes who handle the ball well," Wheeler said.
"And nine can play more than one position, which is a real plus."
HCC's toughest opponent will be Allegany, ranked 15th in the NJCAA preseason Division I poll. The Express will play Allegany twice. Hagerstown also figures to be tough.
Thirty players tried out this season, but Brown kept only 13. He runs an up-tempo offense and a man-for-man trapping defense, so all 13 will be rotated into the game.
"We've reached the point now where we can pick and choose to get good attitudes, not just good players," Brown said. "The team chemistry is great, and the leadership among the older guys who went to nationals and want to get back there is making everyone work harder."
The Maryland JuCo has realigned to one division, so every team plays every other team at least once.
Among the five returnees is 5-foot-6 point guard Ricky Avent. He backed up Parker last season and worked hard in the off-season.
"He's the one player we can't afford to lose because of his leadership. The kids look up to him. He's the heart and soul of the team," Brown said.
Ray Fountain from Old Mill is an All-America candidate whose 13.5 rebounding average was second nationally in Division III. The 6-foot-4 power forward also can play small forward. He averaged 17 points.
Kamau Street started every game last season and averaged 14 points and 13 rebounds. Street (6-5) played center, power forward and small forward. He'll be a small forward this season.
"He's the strongest kid on our team and uses that to his advantage," Brown said.
Joe Herring is a 6-6, 250-pound center who started 70 percent of HCC's games last season. He has lost 30 pounds, which helps his speed and footwork.
"He likes to bang, and every team needs someone like him," Brown said. "He plays good post defense and is our most improved returning player."
Andrew Tetteh from Hammond High was a part-time player last season and will back up Street at small forward this year. He also can play 2 guard.
"Andrew is caught up in a numbers game because we have so many talented players," Brown said.
Newcomers include 5-9 Randolph Edison, who was first-team All-Metro at Edmondson High last season when he averaged 25 points and was the second-leading scorer in Baltimore City. He'll start at two guard.
"He fills the void left by Parker. He can penetrate, score at will and flat-out shoot," Brown said. "We feel fortunate to have him."
Darrin Johnson, who graduated from Arundel High in 1989, then spent four years in the Army, is another major addition. Johnson averaged 27 points his senior season. He'll back up Fountain at power forward.
Another pleasant surprise for Brown is Antoine Austin, a childhood friend of Street's. They moved to Columbia last January. He's 6-5 and will back up Austin at center.
Ravon Austin (no relation to Antoine) is one of three Old Mill graduates on the team. He sat out last season after knee surgery and is expected to be the backup point guard and backup shooting guard.
"He could crack the starting lineup at some point," Brown said.
Austin Johnson (no relation to Darrin) is a 1992 Old Mill graduate who took last season off to earn enough money for college. He's out until Dec. 1 with a separated shoulder.
Deon Wingfield had an outstanding season for Wilde Lake in 1992.
He has tremendous quickness but has been working on weights to build up his strength.
George Robinson (Oakland Mills) will be the third-string point guard. He's a hustler with a lot of desire and outstanding defensive ability.