Winning eight of its first 10 games this winter has probably earned the Rockville High School boys’ basketball team a bit more respect from its opponents than it has had in the past — second-year coach Steve Watson said teams no longer walk into the gym expecting an easy win. But the Rams, whose 12-11 record last winter marked its first winning campaign in more than a decade, are not overly concerned with what anyone outside their own circle thinks.
One winning season, even two, is not the goal. Watson, who spent five years as Rockville’s junior varsity coach under current Clarksburg coach G.J. Kissal, has his sights set on morphing the Rams into one of the county’s premier programs. That moniker, which Watson said would have to be accompanied by division, region and state success, comes more from within the team itself than outsiders’ opinions.
“Other teams are not going to tell us we’re good, we have to prove it,” Watson said. “Being considered a premier team is more on us. We can’t claim to be that until we do some things. We’ve got to get to the state level. It’s not immediate, it’s done over a few years.
“One of the challenges was that winning was uncommon and unfamiliar so when we won you would see this big reaction. Now we don’t get overly excited when we win one game. We’ve learned how to be winners. Internally, within the community, we’ve started to change the mentality and expectation.”
This recent upward trend dates back seven years, Watson said, to when Kissal was hired to head the program and spearheaded a youth basketball movement. The Rams are finally reaping the benefits of that effort.
Rockville was already at a disadvantage with such a small district that features only one main feeder middle school. But there were also no youth basketball programs feeding into the high school, so Kissal and Watson created one: The Orange Alliance. In addition to two, week-long camps over the summer led by Rockville coaches and players, there are now teams at the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade levels competing in various leagues throughout the year. Watson communicates with them in order to build a connection down through the community’s youth.
Rather than having to teach basketball newcomers the fundamentals of the sport as freshmen, prospective student-athletes are coming in to high school with playing experience. This past summer, Watson put together an Amateur Athletic Union team of boys in sixth through eighth grades that played in tournaments.
These youth players are encouraged to attend Rockville games and the Rams make a concerted effort to build relationships with the program’s future generation, senior leading scorer Nehemiah Jackson said.
“That’s an example we took from all the great programs in the area,” Watson said. “If you talk to a kid who grows up in the [Col. Zadok] Magruder district or the [Walt] Whitman district, they dream of playing on that stage. And that is something we’re trying to build in Rockville. I feel like we’re a growing program but we have a long way before we have that kind of recognition. If we’re going to keep that interest, we need to be able to be consistent [in winning] and do it year in and year out.”
A more tangible reason for Rockville’s success this winter has been the Rams’ defense and the way the three new starters immediately gelled with returners Jackson and Brian Ball, Watson said. Defense is one thing that can remain consistent whether or not the team is actually playing well and the Rams’ dynamic defense — zone, traps, man-to-man — has been extremely reliable. Rockville (8-2) is only averaging 58.1 points per game, its opponents are not collectively reaching 51 points a night.
Making stops on defense sparks the offense, Watson said, which thrives in transition. Jackson (16.1 points per game) and Ball (16 ppg) lead the team in scoring and any good scout would mark those two as the players to stop but Rockville’s success has also hinged on their supporting cast’s ability to make plays. Sophomore Ben Wiebusch (8.7) and seniors Essex Thompson (5.3) and Brad Rogers have presented themselves as reliable scorers.
“I feel like this year’s team, [states] is the goal but we have to take it slowly game by game,” Wiebusch said. “It’s small steps leading up to a big goal, which is Comcast. First we have to win the division, then the region.”
Added Watson: “My hope is to continue to see Rockville continue this trend upward. We want to be a program more than a team.”