In Maryland public school boys basketball, March is the time to make championship statements, but you have to speak up long before that in order to have something to say then.
New Town guard Stuart Clarke hardly had a voice to speak with Friday because of a nasty case of bronchitis that put him in a hospital the day before, but his game spoke loudly in a crosstown meeting with Owings Mills that just might pay dividends down the road.
Clarke, a 6-foot-2 junior who is rounding into one of the area's top guards, shook off his illness and in-your-jersey defense from Eagles senior Kendall Adams to score a game-high 20 points, including the game-winning free throws in New Town's 69-64 win.
"It's been a tough recovery, but I had to come through for my team," Clarke said. "At first, I wasn't going to come [to school], but we had to get the win. This is one we had to get, so I said, 'I'm going to fight it out whether I go out there and die on the floor or not. I've got to come out for my team.' "
New Town has struggled a bit early in defending its Class 1A state title. Because of graduation and transfers, the team has had to turn to junior varsity call-ups when not relying on Clarke.
The Titans lost halftime leads to McDonogh and Randallstown and were blown out by St. Frances, but they scored a signature victory - a 23-point drubbing of Dunbar - at a holiday tournament in Washington last month.
The Titans beat the Poets by five last March in the state final to end Dunbar's run of four straight championships, but the win two weeks ago confirmed that New Town's climb to the top of the area's basketball hierarchy in just the school's fifth year wasn't a fluke.
"We're learning how to win in the fourth quarter," New Town coach Michael Smith said. "We're learning how to play with the lead. Some of the guys got discouraged [with the St. Frances loss], but we're coming around. The Dunbar win ... gave us another little bit of confidence."
That sense of assurance certainly came to the fore Friday as one of the JV call-ups, junior Malik Edwards, hit two three-pointers early in the fourth quarter to cap an 8-0 run to get the Titans back in the game after Owings Mills erased a 13-point halftime deficit to lead by seven early in the fourth.
Throughout the quarter, the teams traded leads like punches in a heavyweight fight until Clarke broke a tie at 62 with 56.5 seconds left with two free throws. The Titans played solid defense in the final minute to prevail over Owings Mills (7-2).
Clarke is developing a knack for coming up big in big games. He posted 30 points in a 70-64 loss to 2A champion Randallstown last month, as well as a triple double in the Dunbar win.
"In a game like that [against Dunbar], it really meant a lot to me," Clarke said. "It's not all about points; it's about doing what wins games. That's what we did and what I did."
For the Titans to put up another state championship banner in the corner of their gym, Clarke will have to speak up, literally and figuratively.
"We're definitely in position [to get another state title], but we have to fight to do that," Clarke said. "We have to be hungry, whether it's practice or games. It's not going to come easy, and we'll have to fight to do it. But we can get it done, and I'm ready to lead us."