Long Reach making short work of opposition in Howard County

Despite a lack of height, Lightning at top of league

Boys basketball

High schools

January 16, 2002|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

The Howard County-leading Long Reach boys basketball team does not instill fear in the opposition when it first walks onto the court.

That's because the team is so small. The small forward, Ray Hall, is 5 feet 10. Point guard Mike Smelkinson is 5-4. Shooting guard Jared Bradford is 5-10.

"We're probably the smallest team in the county," coach Al Moraz said.

Smelkinson, a key component in the Lightning's success this season, may be small but he's awfully tough.

His skills, honed through year-round play, including Baltimore City's Mount Royal Amateur Athletic Union team, are remarkable. The sophomore can fake and pass with the best in the area and averages seven assists a game.

Before the season, no one thought that the defending co-champion Lightning would win another title, after losing much of the team and Howard County Player of the Year Josh Gross to graduation. Even Long Reach had doubts.

"After our scrimmages against Mt. St. Joe and High Point in which we held our own, then we knew we could run with teams from Howard County," said Smelkinson, who led the JV to a 19-1 record last season and is averaging just three turnovers this season.

The Lightning (10-2 overall, 6-2 league) has climbed to the front of the pack with a combination of strong defense that features a full-court press, leading to 13 steals a game; decent ball-handling, with an average of just 13 turnovers; and good shooting, with 49 percent accuracy from two-point range and 35 percent from three-point range.

At yesterday's practice in the auxiliary gym, coach Al Moraz worked on all the less entertaining aspects of basketball: interior defense, boxing out, taking charges and free-throw shooting.

The Lightning stresses free-throw accuracy because it remembers losing an outright county title on the last day of the regular season by missing three free throws after time had expired. They had to settle for a share of the title with Centennial.

The team also remembers that it was Glenelg - tonight's opponent - that defeated them that day. Moraz reminded the players at the end of yesterday's practice.

The team's scoring leader, Anthony Gaither, averages 20.1 points, third in the county behind Glenelg's Eric Breland (25.1 points) and River Hill's Kevin Steenberge (23.4 points).

"It feels good to be in this position, because nobody gave us any respect in the county at the start of the season," Gaither said. "Now, everyone looks at our record and wants [to beat] us."

This team already has accomplished something no other Long Reach team has done. It won the High Point Tournament over the winter holidays by beating two quality teams in Paint Branch and High Point. The Lightning brought home a huge blue and yellow trophy that now adorns the school's trophy case.

The case still has plenty of space for another county championship trophy, but as Moraz said: "We're taking it one game at a time."

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