Hammond produced the juiciest story of last weekend's girls state basketball tournament by winning its first state title in Class 2A, an area previously owned by Mount Hebron. But in the bigger picture, thetournament validated what many observers already felt.
Howard County girls basketball is the finest in the state.
I'm not exactly breaking new ground here. The county has produceda state champion in six of the last seven seasons, and at least one state finalist for seven straight years. Granted, Mount Hebron owns five of those state championships, but the county has long been more than a one-team power.
Look at last year, when three of the county's eight teams -- Hebron, Glenelg and Oakland Mills -- qualified for the states. Hebron and Oakland Mills played in the 2A and 3A finals.
This year's 2A tournament provided more proof of the county's superiority. For the first time in the tourney's 20-year history, two Howard County teams, Hammond and Glenelg, faced off in the final.
Can you imagine what might have happened at Catonsville Community Collegeif Mount Hebron and Howard, the top two teams in the county this year, had earned a chance to perform?
Hammond and Glenelg wound up third and fourth in the county's regular-season standings. Hammond finished with a 10-4 record, Glenelg at 9-5. Meanwhile, Hebron and Howardsat in the stands at Catonsville with some excellent credentials.
Hebron went undefeated against the county for the ninth time in Coach Dave Greenberg's 14 seasons. In addition to beating Hammond and Glenelg twice during the regular season, the Vikings easily beat Old Mill in December. Old Mill, the top program in Anne Arundel County, won its second consecutive 4A crown Saturday.
Then there's Howard, which finished a strong second in the county at 11-3 and wound up 19-5 overall. Three of the Lions' five defeats came against state champions-- one against Hammond and two against 3A state titlist Linganore ofFrederick County. Mount Hebron also defeated the Lions twice.
After Hammond beat Glenelg, 56-51, to win the championship, Hammond coach Joe Russo saluted his regular-season opponents for preparing his team for the playoffs.
"Look at the competition we had," Russo said."We played some of the best teams in the state."
Russo was referring mostly to Hebron and Howard, who gave Hammond and Glenelg fits during the regular season. Hebron and Howard went a combined 7-1 against them, winning their games by an average of 14 points. All four teams spent the entire season hovering in or close to The Baltimore Sun'sTop 10 Baltimore metropolitan area rankings.
How did Howard County gain such an edge? Primarily because of Mount Hebron, which established itself as the class of the county 12 years ago with its textbook, man-to-man defense and team-concept approach.
Gradually over thelast decade, most county teams have decided wisely that in order to compete with Hebron, they must imitate them.
The county sets itself apart from the rest of the state mainly in the way its coaches approach defense.
"I feel you're doing a disservice to kids when you only teach them to play zone defense. That's just standing around. It's not real basketball," said Glenelg coach Chuck Struhar, who was teaching man-to-man in the late 1970s at Glenelg even before Greenberg came along at Hebron. Struhar spends more than half of his practices on defense.
"When you teach man-to-man, the practices are harder. There's much more correcting, much more tension, more sacrifice involved," Struhar said. "But it makes for better basketball. And people got to see (at Catonsville) what Howard County basketball is all about.We're talking about a high-powered league."
That was clearly evident in Friday's 2A semifinals.
Hammond started the day by outclassing a 20-4 Damascus (Montgomery County) team with superb defense. After falling behind the Hornets 21-17 at the end of the first quarter, the Golden Bears took command by allowing Damascus only 27 points therest of the way en route to a 59-48 victory. Damascus committed 26 turnovers in face of Hammond's furious pressure.
Glenelg's dismantling of top-seeded, 21-2 Wicomico provided a better example. The Gladiators also trailed after the first period, 14-10. And like Hammond, Glenelg took over the game with defense. Over the last three quarters,Wicomico, which played mostly zone defenses, managed only 19 points.Glenelg won easily, 45-33, forcing 30 turnovers.
"We could still be playing, and Wicomico still wouldn't have 50 points," said Struhar.
Struhar isn't just barking. He knows as well as anyone that whenit comes to girls basketball, no one matches Howard County's bite.