On the night of June 22, Northeast coach Roger O’Dea returned home a jumble of aches and pains — and joy.
O’Dea had just completed his first day of summer basketball camp since 2019, long before the pandemic hit when seasons and offseason training sessions were givens.
“My coaches and I got a phone call from everybody like, ‘We’re aching.’ Just not used to being on our feet all day. But I say that’s a good feeling. Compared to last year, not getting to do what we wanted to do,” O’Dea said.
From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., children from elementary school-aged up to high school flock the Northeast High gym to practice basketball skills during O’Dea’s summer camp. The sessions, which O’Dea ambitiously extended to six weeks this year, always serve as a way to prepare older players for the winter season to come as well as develop future Eagles.
This particular summer, camps all around Anne Arundel County public schools do more than that. This is the first time players and coaches can officially come together since the pandemic unceremoniously cut short the winter season in March 2020.
It’s the first time they can prepare for real, tangible high school basketball they feel almost certain is on its way come mid-November. It’s not just Northeast-related players in attendance either; some Chesapeake and Broadneck-bound players came out.
Even former players returned to train themselves for college while guiding the younger kids. Campers under 12 years old wear masks, as do the coaches that work with them, but the rest that are vaccinated operate mask-less.
“It’s good to be back around the kids, back in the gym and good to be getting the energy up and back to the community as well,” O’Dea said.
When O’Dea first staked the advertisements in the ground, he worried about the interest levels since at least 40 players were necessary to cover staff salaries. He was thrilled when sign-ups flooded in. Usually, packing the Fourth of July week is “impossible,” but this year more than 50 kids signed up at Northeast that week.
“A lot of them are just happy to be on the court,” O’Dea said. “A lot of parents are like, ‘We’re just glad to put a basketball in their hand.’ We’ve been blessed.”
O’Dea didn’t know at first whether he’d even run camp this year. He spoke with other coaches for advice, especially Glen Burnie’s Mike Rudd. Rudd who mentored O’Dea when he started up the Northeast camp years ago, thought perhaps 2021 would be another summer to skip.
“I said, ‘We have to do our camp. If we can do it, we have to do it,’ ” O’Dea said.
Most high school coaches for fall and spring sports had at least a shortened chance to see what they were working with come normalcy and regular seasons in the future. Spring had nearly a complete season with playoffs; fall teams had a few weeks.
The winter season, at least for the public schools, had no in-person activities — leaving online sessions as the only interaction with players.
Freshmen, most of whom never touched a ball in varsity competition, are coming back as juniors and in some cases are the most experienced players. The seniors tasked with leading their young hodgepodge were mere sophomores in their last seasons, often playing on teams loaded with senior and junior starters.
Rudd, running his 21st year of Glen Burnie summer basketball camp, felt pleasantly surprised by the physical maturity of his incoming players after only seeing them from behind computer screens for a year. There will likely be no seniors on the roster this year, and just two freshmen got court time in the playoff loss to Arundel in 2019. However, with the energy they’ve shown, Rudd said he’d put them up against anybody this winter with confidence.
“I like what I’m seeing,” Rudd said. “The core group of guys put in the work, and we’ll know which [of the others] did and which didn’t.”
Getting everyone ready for high school competition isn’t the only obstacle. Masks haven’t been required in weeks for anyone over the age of 12. Many kids and coaches are vaccinated, but Rudd nonetheless worries constantly that someone will get sick. He knows how bad that can be.
When he made the decision to run camp, Rudd’s father was dying from coronavirus. Selvin Rudd contracted the virus while down in Florida, and returned home to try and fight it. He lost his battle surrounded by family.
“Some people don’t know if it’s real or not, this and that. I know first-hand it is real,” Rudd said, “because I lost my best friend, best mentor and dad in one shot.”
Rudd came into the first week of camp grief-stricken, but the pure normalcy of standing before a sea of basketball campers came over him like a wash of relief.
“It was the first time I felt like me since the pandemic started,” Rudd said. “The greatest part is the energy has been off the charts. The kids are here to play and they compete like crazy.”
That’s “the hard part,” O’Dea said. He felt certain the Eagles would have competed for another region title this past winter. Instead, he graduated 11 seniors that never touched the ball again.
What remains, he said, are inexperienced rising seniors still grasping for a sense of leadership and a “sensational” younger class. The formerly loaded veteran Northeast roster means none of the rising juniors actually played for O’Dea yet. Because of that, his staff could work with them in the long offseason.
Those younger players that remain competed at as many Amateur Athletic Union tournaments they could without a season this past year. By virtue of those players having never represented Northeast High, O’Dea and his staff was able to work with them in the offseason.
“It hurt [to lose the seniors], but it’s motivating. We got to be like them, but better, too,” said rising junior Bryan Tosam. “We have a lot of weight on our shoulders and a lot of people looking at us. We got something to prove.”
And now, the payoff is finally coming — three months from now, they can finally shrug into Northeast jerseys. One of those future stars is Cam Albury, a rising sophomore and the younger brother of 2020 Capital Gazette Boys Basketball Player of the Year Jaylin Albury. He saw all the awards that came in for his brother and then got to work.
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“It’s fun because I didn’t get [a season]. I’ve been watching my brother and waiting for high school for a while,” Albury said. “It’s exciting. I’m ready to get in the gym.”