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Randallstown perfect, but Rivers is on edge

There isn't a coach anywhere, from the youngest rec league squad to the NBA, who would pass up a chance to hoist a banner, and Kim Rivers is no exception. His fifth-ranked Randallstown boys basketball team has a chance to claim the Baltimore County championship today against Woodlawn, and Rivers would certainly make room for another banner on the Rams' gym wall.

But he already has three state championships, and if losing today will help him get a fourth next month, well, he wouldn't be all that broken up, even at the cost of a perfect season and a 40-game winning streak.

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"I don't want to lose the county championship, but if it's going to help me win the state championship, then I'll take the L, to get these kids back focused," he said.

"What's frustrated me is I don't see them picking up new things that I think they should be having ready for the tournament. There are still some things that I think we need to improve on if we're going to make a run at getting down to Comcast [Center, site of the state semifinals and final]. We're still not there yet."

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You could dismiss Rivers' concerns as so much caterwauling from an overly concerned coach. How worried should you be with a team that is coming off a state championship with a 19-0 mark and hasn't lost in 13 months, since last Jan. 8, when it dropped a 61-49 decision to Southwestern?

But, in Rivers' mind, most of those accomplishments were from an entirely different team.

The squad that won the 3A state title and more than half of the games in this unbeaten streak had forward Dominic Venable and Melvin Alaeze at center, both All-Baltimore County selections, as well as Marlon Johnson and Shamar Davis, who made big contributions in the tournament.

The current team, which is now in 2A thanks to reclassification, has six players returning from last year but only one starter, with five sophomores in that mix - enough callowness to make the preternaturally young Rivers start looking for gray hairs to pull.

"When you have a veteran team, you go in with a plan much better than when you have a situation like ours where we have one returning starter and everybody else is basically new to the environment of Comcast or the regionals," Rivers said.

"They played roles, small roles, those six guys that came back. When you have five sophomores who are getting thrown to the wolves, you just don't know what you're going to get."

But the one returning starter from last year's team, guard Johnny Higgins, has given Randallstown a solid chance to get to College Park for the fifth time in the past seven years. The 6-foot-2 guard, a junior in academic standing but in his final athletic season, has carried the Rams at times with solid scoring and leadership.

"There are days when he gets frustrated because he has to put the team on his back," said Rivers, who has a 261-42 record in 12 seasons. "That's a lot when you're a 17-year-old young man. You're just coming off a state championship and you may know what it takes, but you've got nine or 10 other guys who are not quite there yet.

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"It's frustrating for him at times, but other times, he's like a coach on the court for me. He's telling me what to do. 'Coach, I see this matchup.' ...

"But this is a great learning tool for him as he enters college and starts to want to play that point guard role. The point guard is like a coach on the court, anyway, so this is a great opportunity for him to prepare for college."

The Rams aren't just Higgins; senior center Andre Hounshell has made big plays, and junior forwards Darrell Bryant and Lyndon Jones provide important support.

Rivers will need them to grow and coalesce quickly. The state tournament draw will be released Sunday, and the games that count begin next week. The coach worries that this year's schedule hasn't toughened his players' collective hides enough for the storm that is coming.

"They're not there," Rivers said. "I've had seven teams go down to [the state semifinals], and out of those seven teams, I would rank them maybe sixth in reference to being prepared for the tournament. We're young, we're not as hungry and we're not as focused at this point.

"Sometimes, maybe it's me expecting too much from a young team. But at the same time, I know Maryland state basketball and I know how the tournament is, and if you get complacent, you go home. I don't want these kids to have regrets because they took someone for granted."

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milton.kent@baltsun.com


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