The Class of 1997 has arrived.
Three freshmen -- Hammond's Rene Hines, Howard's Chanelle Carter and Glenelg's Camey Brian -- haven't wasted any time proving they can play with the best in Howard County girls basketball. All three have turned in big minutes and big baskets giving their squads sometimes badly needed depth.
Hines stands tall at the head of the class -- and not just because she's 6 feet 1.
"Rene is the best freshman I've seen coming into the league, and there have been some good ones," said Craig O'Connell, coach at Howard for the past six years.
An agile, athletic player, Hines brought to the Bears six years of experience, including the last two on a nationally ranked AAU team. She led that team in scoring and rebounding last summer.
Now as the sixth man for No. 2 Hammond, a team brimming with talent, Hines averages 10.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals a game. She shoots 67 percent from the field.
"I never dreamed she would be averaging in double figures with the girls I have," said Bears coach Joe Russo. "But Rene won one game for us, and she comes off the bench and contributes in every game. She's averaging almost 21 minutes a game, which is excellent."
Hines grabbed the limelight -- and the attention of more than one college coach -- early by scoring the game-winner in the opening round of the IAABO Girls Invitational Christmas Basketball Tournament. In addition to scoring Hammond's last four points, Hines had a key rebound and a big block in the final minute and a half of a 45-43 victory over W. T. Woodson.
After that win, Bears senior captain Kacy Williams couldn't say enough about her youngest teammate. "Rene's doing everything we could ask and then some. She's rebounding, she's running the plays. She's doing everything."
Not much has changed in six weeks. With Hammond struggling with foul trouble , Hines has seen more action. Her contributions have continued to grow.
Hines scored a season-high 20 points Feb. 4 in a 76-45 victory over Wilde Lake. That effort came on the heels of a 15-point performance two days earlier in a 56-28 win over Howard.
For Howard's Carter, the season started off well enough. Another AAU veteran, Carter came off the bench to average 6.2 points and seven rebounds through the first six games.
At the Liberty Belle Tournament right after Christmas, the 5-9 forward broke into the Lions' starting lineup. Unfortunately, she also broke her foot in the tournament and will miss the rest of the season.
In her final game, Carter had scored a season-high 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds before going down with the injury midway through the second quarter. Losing her has been a big blow to the Lions.
"Since we only have seven players, we not only miss her statistics, we miss her person," said O'Connell. "She's a great kid who works hard and wants to get better. It's a shame not to have her. Even though she's a freshman, that kind of attitude can be contagious."
For No. 19 Glenelg, Brian has plenty of raw talent but lacks the experience of Hines and Carter.
She spent a couple of weeks on junior varsity, but averaging 17 points a game earned her a promotion.
"Camey's very athletic and can do things that a lot of other players were unable to do just on her athleticism," said Gladiators coach Randy Wallenhorst. "She needs to work on fundamentals, but [on varsity] she's playing against much better competition, even in practice, so in the long run she'll be better off."
Brian is the first one to admit that she's still learning. She never misses optional Saturday practices when she can get extra individual attention.
"I think of this as my first real year of basketball," said Brian, who played on a western Howard County travel team. "In rec leagues and on travel teams, they didn't teach us techniques, how to dribble or shoot. On JV, the coach taught us everything."
Now as the Gladiators' sixth man, she contributes 7.7 points and 5.9 rebounds a game.