When Howard Community College reinstated its men's basketball team in 1988 after a four-year absence, many fans and opponents didn't takethe move seriously. The number of people attending games could be counted on two hands, HCC coach Wheeler Brown said.
But this season the team is enjoying a 17-3 record, and people are taking notice. HCChas been ranked in the top 10 nationally all season among some 100 schools in Division III junior colleges.
The latest NJCAA poll ranks the Express sixth in the division. And the team ranks first in the National Division of the Maryland JuCo conference at 13-1.
"I think the word has gotten out to a lot of areas in the county that the basketball program at Howard is viable and a fairly good one," Brown said. "I now think the kids see the seriousness of the program.
"The kids who have come here see the positives. They say 'Howard is not a bad place to go to school and play basketball.' The guys are seeing an opportunity to showcase themselves."
Two who saw that chance are James Hamilton, who left HCC last year, and Mark Peters, from Washington, who is making his mark in his second season at HCC.
"The two have been the cornerstone of getting the program off the ground," Brown said.
Hamilton, currently attending Bowie State University on scholarship, averaged more than 30 points per game for the Express the last two seasons. His performance last year garnered the former Arundel High School star all-conference and honorable mention All-American honors.
But Peters may top that this season.
The McKinley Tech graduate is the nation's leading scorer for Division III junior colleges at 33.7 points per game.
Brown expects first-team All-American, all-region and all-conference honors for the sophomore guard. And Peters is being recruited by more than a dozen Division I colleges.
Brown also attributes the success of the program to his improved coaching ability.
"I have become a better coach," Brown said. "I have really worked hard to improve my coaching abilities through attending clinics, reading and watching videotapes."
Strong recruiting has also improved the program.
Six county high school recruits also saw the chance to showcase themselves this season, including All-County selections Jermaine Reynolds (Atholton), Randy Miller (Wilde Lake) and Chris Williams (Hammond).
"This was the best recruiting class here in three years," Brown said. "In the past we had to depend on kids who didn't have high school experience or who have been out of high school a couple of years."
Thekey to landing high school recruits for Brown has been the team's highly competitive schedule. HCC plays Division I and II junior colleges in addition to its regular Division III schedule.
"I think a keypart in getting the kids here is playing a competitive schedule," Brown said.
"I think it does more to get the kids here than anythingelse. We schedule the Division I and II schools for credibility and as a recruiting tool. The kids know they are going to get a lot of exposure playing against the best."
Despite having no athletic scholarships to offer, Brown has lost no county recruits to Catonsville orFrederick community colleges -- both offer scholarships and activelyrecruit players in Howard County.
Brown and his assistant, Nathaniel Henson, have been aggressively recruiting in Howard County, Baltimore County and Baltimore.
Although Brown doesn't expect commitments from recruits until the spring, the fourth-year coach is optimistic for another outstanding recruiting class.
"I would like to thinknext year's recruiting class would be just as competitive as this year's," Brown said.
"Right now we are just looking and window-shopping."
This season, the Express returned four starters and have received important support from three freshman: Miller (nine points per game), Reynolds (11 points, 12 rebounds) and Williams (key reserve forward).
"A lot of the young guys have come in and established themselves right away," Brown said.
The latest Express victory was over Catonsville last Wednesday, 89-73.
Last year, HCC posted a 15-15record and finished fourth in the conference with a 10-6 mark.
For the 1989-1990 season, the first year the Express started competing in the Maryland Junior College Athletic Association, the team posted a 13-11 record.
In the program's first year of competition, the squad played junior colleges, community colleges and local college junior-varsity teams.
"The program has taken off sooner than a lot of people expected, including myself," Brown said.
"I think other schools are amazed at what we have accomplished so soon. The program hasturned around 360 degrees just in a short three-year period.
"A couple of kids (Peters and Hamilton) took a chance to come to Howard, and because those kids took a chance, it put us on the map."