Gaithersburg Boys Basketball Wins First Regional Title in 20 Years
Finishing strong has been one of the main themes of this season for the Gaithersburg boys basketball team. The emphasis came as a result of last season, which was a rare down year for the program.
That campaign started on a difficult note when the Trojans lost two players who were expected to play important roles just before the season started. What followed was a disappointing campaign for Gaithersburg in which the group finished 8-13, with 10 of those losses coming after the team held a lead in the fourth quarter.
"That was obviously frustrating," head coach Jeff Holda said. "All summer, we reinforced the importance of mental toughness, closing out games, and accepting challenges. Once Nov. 15 arrived, our message didn't change."
The Trojans were forced to see if they could follow that message before this season even started. Gaithersburg lost three experienced seniors to transfer in August, which left the team with just three returners who had played any real minutes at the varsity level.
This year, the Trojans responded positively to the adversity. Gaithersburg currently stands at 20-5, and will play against Perry Hall in the MPSSAA 4A state semifinal round on Mar. 8.
"We were fortunate enough to add some new faces. We start two freshmen, so we're obviously a young team," Holda said. "We pressure the ball, speed up our opponent, turn them over, and get buckets in transition. We always have five guards on the floor, so we like to space the floor and allow our guys to create for themselves and their teammates."
In terms of personnel, the Trojans have been led by Kevin Neal, Julio Tamakloe and Jordan Graham, a trio of senior guards who bring a lot of experience and leadership to the group. Jao Ituka and Jordan Hawkins are the two freshmen guards who start, and Holda says they've taken Gaithersburg to another level with their sheer talent, and fearlessness. A pair of forwards, senior Deangelo Miller and sophomore Chris Kouemi, have been big contributors off the bench, as has junior guard Tracy Jones.
The Trojans needed strong efforts from every player to get past Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the 4A West regional final. Gaithersburg trailed in the contest until Graham his a three-pointer with just over a minute left in the contest. Ituka also provided some late heroics, as he forced a steal with 13.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter, then hit two free throws to ice the game and give the Trojans a 65-61 victory.
The win started a massive celebration from the Trojans' supporters. It's Gaithersburg's first regional title since 1998, something the team was aware of.
"Starting in the summer we told our players that this season would be exactly 20 years since the last time Gaithersburg had even reached a regional final, let alone won one. Winning that game was our first goal on our list," Holda said. "Our school community has been incredibly supportive all season, and they showed out. It was surreal to watch our fans storm the court and celebrate. I've been waiting 12 years to see something like that."
In Perry Hall, Gaithersburg will be facing a team that has won three straight MPSSAA 4A North regional titles, as well as last year's 4A state championship. It'll be a difficult challenge as the Gators are known for being one of the most talented and largest teams in Maryland.
"They're obviously talented, experienced and well-coached. This game is going to fun to watch," Holda said. "All I can guarantee is that we will be ourselves, and we will never back down from anyone."
The obvious goal for Gaithersburg is to play two more games, and win them both. The last time Gaithersburg got this far the program was able to do just that and win its lone state title.
For a group that has been pushed from the very beginning to finish strong, there's no better final test than the one they're about to take on.
"It would be validation for our players and community that good people, who consistently do the right things and strive to be their best, can accomplish anything," Holda said.
|March 7th, 2018||By: Wick Eisenberg|