Robert Bean was quick to keep his optimism in check.
His Winston Churchill High School basketball team had just followed up a four-point win against previously-ranked Walt Whitman by delivering a 20-point home thumping to then-No. 5 Montgomery Blair. But he has seen these flashes of brilliance before. He was quick to contain his excitement within realistic bounds.
“It’s a good sign for sure, but it’s a little bit too early to tell,” the first-year coach said. “We won three in a row earlier but then we lost three in a row. What I’m seeing right now is in practice, we seem a lot more focused and we’re playing in practice like we play in a game.”
What he’s also seeing is a consistently full roster for one of the first times all season. Bean has had to deal with injuries and various other reasons for athletes being unable to play. With 6-foot-5 junior Bobby Arthur-Williams and 6-4 sophomore Sean Strittmatter, both of whom have battled injuries throughout the year, and several others as healthy as they’ve been all year, Churchill has essentially its entire lineup playing together, and playing on the same page.
“We’ve had a couple big wins,” Bean said. “We needed them. Things are starting to come around. It’s tough to get a new coach and it’s tough to be a new coach.”
Earlier in the week, Springbrook coach Tom Crowell had actually voiced his confusion over why Churchill was struggling so much. Prior to the Bulldogs’ resurgent week, they were 5-11 and had lost four of the past five games, though that win did come against a solid Col. Zadok Magruder team.
“They’re so athletic, they have some really good players,” Crowell said, before specifically citing Jesse Locke and Allen Njumbe as the two that particularly stuck out to him.
Well, guess who combined for 37 points in the Feb. 4 victory over Whitman? And then another 36 in the rout over Blair? Locke and Njumbe.
“Our offense was clicking, our defense — I think we were doing a job getting hands in [Blair’s] face and getting on the boards,” Bean said. “And on offense, we were getting a lot of good shots, open shots.”
Bean runs what he likes to call a “penetrate and kick” motion-style offense. The penetration draws the defense to leave a man, ideally Locke or Njumbe, open on the perimeter. The result was a devastating 13 made 3-pointers against Blair — topping the previous season-high of 12 on Magruder — nine of which came off the hands of Locke and Njumbe.
Though Churchill is well out of the running for a bye in the playoffs, every team makes the tournament regardless of regular season success. With the playoff draw near, it’s not too bad a time to begin peaking.
“We got to shore up a lot of things, to be honest,” Bean said. “We have a lot to work on. Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Poolesville at Rockville, 5:15 p.m. Tuesday
The game that will likely decide the Montgomery 3A/2A Division title