After a recent Northwest High School boys basketball practice, the team all went to a nearby classroom to sign a white Jaguars’ basketball t-shirt for a fan, and the group started flinging jokes at each other.
Coaches razzed players about grades and the boys argued over who had the worst handwriting. It was all in fun and no one was off limits.
“We know that we have each other’s back and we know that those guys are there for us,” sophomore point guard Jamar Wilson said.
Team chemistry is as good as it’s been in years for the Jaguars, who, with a young and inexperienced roster, hope they are building a team that can succeed for years to come.
Players say that feeling of togetherness wasn’t there last season when Northwest looked less like a team and more like a group of individuals.
“Last year we weren’t together really. We didn’t have that camaraderie,” said senior Alex Michel, who played for coach Usman Jamil his freshman and sophomore years on junior varsity and last year on varsity. “It’s night and day from last year. It’s totally different. To me, we had more talent last year. It was just selfishness, you could say. We had [two starters] quit after two games. And then we had another that scored 16 [points] a game, but all he wanted to do was shoot and score.”
Heading into this season there was an opportunity for a fresh start. Senior Elliot Gambrell, the Jaguars leading scorer with 15.6 points per game, was the only returning player who saw significant time on varsity last year, Jamil’s first season at the helm. The majority of the roster is newcomers, including five sophomores: Wilson, who shoots 92 percent from the free throw line, Jordan Fairfax, Donnie Gaines, Brandon Williams and Reagan Zamena. Gambrell came to Northwest last season after moving from Georgia, Wilson is a transfer from Dunbar (D.C.) and junior Xavier Bradley returned to Northwest after a year in Georgia.
It’s translated to the court. As of Sunday, Northwest was 8-6 and aside from a 75-41 season-opening loss to Springbrook, only one loss has been by more than 10 points.
The losses have come as a result of single-quarter lapses. During a 71-61 loss to Col. Zadok Magruder (12-1, 5-0) — the Colonels played without point guard J.J. Epps — the Jaguars were outscored 24-6 in the second quarter. A one-point loss to Quince Orchard saw Northwest outscored 20-12 in the fourth quarter, its lowest quarter total of the game. In the teams’ first meeting, it was a six-point first quarter that held them back.
“To me, if you lose by 50 or if you lose by one, it’s still a loss,” said Gambrell, who is considering playing at Frostburg University next year. “We have mental lapses throughout games. We have lulls. If we correct those few mental lapses, we’ll be right up there with the elite teams in the county.”
Plenty of banners hang in the Northwest gymnasium for region, county and state championships. Name a sport and there’s a banner for it. Just don’t name boys basketball.
That’s much different from where Jamil played high school basketball.
Jamil graduated high school in 1997 from Magruder, where he played for coach Dan Harwood and where multiple championship banners are hanging, including a state championship banner from last season.
The culture change is aided by the lack of a deep knowledge of Northwest’s past failures and Jamil’s intensity, both in his demands for a team-first attitude and stress on school work. Jamil wants character more than anything. He’s not just building basketball players, Michel said, he’s making them into men.
The team believes it won’t be long for they’ll have a banner of their own.
“Before I leave I want to put a region banner up there,” Gambrell said.