City limits

The Baltimore Sun

By all rights, Deon Queen should have been afraid Thursday.

Queen and his Long Reach boys basketball teammates were facing top-ranked Lake Clifton in a state tournament matchup of schools from Baltimore City, where high quality high school basketball is considered a birthright, and Howard County, where the game is a speed bump between soccer and lacrosse.

Yet there was the Lightning making up a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the mighty Lakers and advance to the Class 3A championship game.

Queen showed plenty of respect, but no fear, because all of a sudden, basketball is just basketball in these parts, regardless of where it's played.

"We play in all the same circuits that they do over the course of the summer," Queen said.

"They just don't know that in Howard County, there's the same group of people that work just as hard as they do, but we just don't get as much respect as the Baltimore City kids or the [Prince George's] County kids. They're known nationally. They have stars. But Howard County has great basketball players.'

Indeed, these days, if you're looking for the center of the Baltimore-area public high school basketball universe, boys or girls, you'll probably have to look outside the city limits if state championships are your indicator.

Three times during the state boys and girls semifinals, Howard County teams met Baltimore City schools head-to-head, and the Howard schools won all three. And Winters Mill captured Carroll County's first boys state title in 61 years Saturday night, beating Randallstown in the 2A final.

Meanwhile, the Poly girls team, which lost to Mount Hebron in the 2A girls title game in one of those head-to-head meetings, was the only city squad, boys or girls, to play for a state title this year.

It has been five years since a city girls team won a state title on the court. Southside was awarded the 2005 1A championship when New Town had to vacate its win because of a forfeit.

Meanwhile, Howard County schools have won state titles in each of the past three years. And while Atholton fell short in the 3A game Saturday night, the Raiders beat Western in a head-to-head semifinal meeting, along with Mount Hebron's win over Poly in the 2A finals.

On the boys side, Baltimore City teams piled up state titles in the 1990s, with Dunbar, Southern, Lake Clifton, Southwestern and Forest Park winning championships, but the current decade has been fallow.

Since 2000, while Dunbar has won five championships, only Douglass and Walbrook have broken through. No city team has won a title the past two years, and this year marked the second time since the city schools joined the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association in 1993 that a team from the city failed to reach the state final.

Meanwhile, suburban Baltimore teams have won six of 12 state titles in the past three tournaments, with Randallstown and Long Reach getting to the 2A and 3A championship games this season. Randallstown had won three straight championships until this season, while Long Reach won the 3A title two years ago.

The reasons for the city's decline are likely more about factors off the court than on. For instance, as the city's population has decreased in recent years, many of the kids who left town are playing in the suburbs or for private or Catholic schools.

In addition, Poly girls coach Kendall Peace said the end of programs like the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League has hindered the development of younger players.

And privately, some suburban coaches say the more freewheeling, less disciplined style that many city coaches employ tends to hurt come tournament time when the game slows down.

Of course, the Howard County coaches, more than other coaches in the area and certainly more than those in the city, must cope with players who are as interested in soccer or lacrosse as basketball.

"The thing we battle with so much, and this is a coach's nightmare, is a lot of our kids play multiple sports," said Teresa Waters, who coached the River Hill girls to a 3A title two years ago and the Oakland Mills girls to the 1A crown in 1998.

"But they're athletic. Maybe it's because they're conditioned. We educate them as far as nutrition and offseason conditioning. I think our league is, for the most part, pretty competitive.'

And the players have no fear of city basketball.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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