Springbrook High School boys basketball coach Tom Crowell can get a little carried away with the hyperbole when talking about the competition in his team's division.
The first comparison was to the Bataan Death March. The next, the NFC East. Then, finally, the ACC.
Crowell, now in his eighth year as Springbrook's coach, may have had a flair for the dramatic when he compared his Blue Devils' schedule to that of a perilous journey made by thousands of prisoners of war or a once all-powerful division in the National Football League or one of college basketball's premier conferences, but the theme of his argument was all the same: these next two months will be no cakewalk.
“We beat a great [Col. Zadok] Magruder team, and in 24 hours we got to turn around and play a [James H.] Blake team we've beaten seven years in a row. I'm thinking, 'We just played a 5-1 team (Magruder), Blake's now 5-1, Paint Branch is 6-0,'” Crowell said. “It just struck me, 'My God, we're going to kill each other.'”
It's not likely that the winner of the Montgomery 4A East will escape with a gaudy record.
“The team that comes out of our division might have four or five losses,” Crowell said.
The teams in the division have quite the resume.
There is, most obviously, Springbrook, the winner of three state titles from 2008-2010 and the proud owner of the most recent blemish on Magruder's record. Then there is undefeated Paint Branch with arguably the deepest bench in the county — four players are currently averaging in double-digit scoring — and always strong Sherwood and Blake.
Upstart squads from John F. Kennedy and Montgomery Blair add to the ever-deepening pool of talent and Wheaton, though not a member of the 4A East but still a Silver Spring-area team, leapt out to a 4-2 start before last week's holiday tournaments.
“It's just a brutal division,” Crowell said. “And I think if the kids look at it in the right frame of mind — it's not all about records — we're going to be better off.”
Barely a month into the season, the division is already stuck in the throes of a non-stop game of King of the Hill, with one team claiming the throne for a day or two before tumbling back down.
Two weeks ago, Springbrook gave the impression it might run away with the division. The Blue Devils engineered a comeback overtime victory against defending state champ Magruder, which had already taken down then nationally-ranked DeMatha Catholic.
Less than 48 hours later, Blake defeated the Blue Devils.
“It was a nice win for us,” Blake coach Marcus Wiggins said of his Bengals' 60-53 win over the Blue Devils on Dec. 21. “We haven't won that first game against Springbrook in a while. But we have nine more division games to go so we pride ourselves in not getting too high. It's only December. We want to be playing our best basketball in February.”
For a minute, then, it was Blake at the helm. But on that same night, Paint Branch took an easy victory over a then one-loss Blair team to remain undefeated, and the Panthers became the de facto No. 1 public school squad.
“I don't think you really can [name a top team],” Paint Branch coach Walter Hardy said. “I think the Springbrook-Paint Branch-Blake rivalry is always really good. It's really hard to say who's a top team. I think on any given night somebody can knock somebody off. You can't look at your schedule and start counting wins.”
Prior to last week's holiday tournaments, Blair, Kennedy and Wheaton were all owners of solid records that looked good on paper, but were also missing a resume-building win. Of the three, only Wheaton had a victory over an opponent with a winning record (Rockville), and the trio was a combined 0-5 when facing teams of .500 or better.
“The competition has been better, and that's — that is what it is,” Blair coach Damon Pigrom said following a loss at Paint Branch on Dec. 21, his team's second in a row after winning the opening four games. “I hoped [the start] would foster some sort of confidence in our guys, and it has to a point, but these last two games we just haven't competed.”
Wheaton would be as likely a state championship candidate as any had Josh Hart, a senior Villanova recruit who transferred to Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., his sophomore year, stuck the public school route. But the expansive recruiting scene offered by private schools in the district lured him away and Wheaton coach Sharief Hashim has adjusted nicely, leading the Knights to a 4-2 record before the holidays.
“I'm not a coach who's bitter to lose a kid with that type of talent,” Hashim said. “It's a great opportunity for him.”
But division play is only beginning and by season's end in mid-February, a pecking order should be established. Yet in a league where it has already been proven that anybody can beat anybody on any given night, does it really matter?
Said Wiggins: “You don't win a state championship in December.”