HAGERSTOWN —To Barry Brown, some things never change.
At this time every October, the Hagerstown Community College coach finds himself and his Hawks men’s basketball team standing in the exact same spot. It’s so familiar, it is identified by a shape and a number.
“We have a core of returnees and we added some great talent,” Brown said. “But this is junior college basketball. We are starting over at Square One.”
Square One. Some call it the starting line and others consider it the bottom rung of a season-long ladder to be climbed. No matter what it is, it’s the place you find a team the day after they file away the accomplishments of the season before.
HCC is in the midst of preseason practices, leading up to its opening weekend of play Nov. 2-3 at the school’s athletic complex. The Hawks are the two-time defending Region XX champions. They won the Maryland JuCo regular season and tournament titles.
And again, HCC fell short in a bid to advance to the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.
It all doesn’t matter now because it is a new season, with a new cast of characters. HCC is without its top scorers (Devin Miller and Alister Chisholm), top ball handler (Tione Womack) and a top rebounder (Ray Watson), all roles that will be filled by new faces.
Yet, Brown is ready for the challenge at hand … and he guarantees his team is, too.
“It’s early and we have to remember that,” Brown said. “But I’m encouraged by the work ethic I’ve seen and the level of athleticism with our new recruits. We are changing face. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done the last two years. Last year, we won the regular season, the JuCo (tournament title) and the region. We will have a bull’s eye on our backs.”
HCC’s nucleus will be anchored with some proven talent, starting with third-year point guard Jerel Carter and Antonio Jenifer. Carter averaged 5.6 points and 4.2 assists last season in a co-starting role with Womack, who is now attending Houston.
Meanwhile, Jenifer was a force for HCC under the basket with 16.7 points and eight rebounds a game, despite being undersized to play post positions.
Other returnees who will add some stability are Antwan Pittman, who came on in the postseason, and Martinsburg’s Jean Eddy Clerius, whom Brown singled out as one of the leaders of the team.
Two redshirts who will get heavy looks will be Stephen Christy and Loren Coates. Christy, a Williamsport graduate, sat out last year to fully heal from injuries suffered during his high school career, but is considered a prime talent for HCC, while Coates returns to the Hawks after sitting out last season.
The recruits have a vast array of talents for Brown to blend. Again, HCC will feature a long and lean team, with minimal size. The plan is to make up for height deficiencies with strong defense.
“We want athletic players who have skills,” Brown said. “We lack big guys, but there weren’t that many out there to get. We’ll have to make up for that with intelligence. Most of our players are from the mid-Atlantic region with a big influx from the D.C. area.”
The Hawks have a challenging season ahead with early season battles against regional foes in Harkum, Monroe (Bronx) and Monroe (Rochester). Monroe (Bronx) ended HCC’s quest for a trip to the national tournament in each of the last two seasons.
The second half of the season is largely dominated by Maryland JuCo play, laced with a number of improving programs with agendas when they face HCC.
“They are all out to get us,” Brown said. “For some reason, beating us is a major accomplishment, so we have to be ready.”
Brown says the pieces are there to assemble another successful run, but like anything sitting at Square One, there is some assembly required.
“It’s like every year,” Brown said. “The first part of the season is where we work to get everybody together. We are setting the foundation, but we have some major tests. But then, when we get to January and February, we look to see where the team is — both athletically and academically — to see if we have what it takes to make another run.”
But the Hawks have a little incentive when it comes to that.
“This will be fun to watch this team develop and grow. We have been on the doorstep of getting to the national tournament the last two years,” Brown said. “My sophomores want to go to (the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.) this year. I want to go to Hutchinson.”