Football is a way of life in the town of Damascus. This is nothing new to the basketball team or its coaches. It’s the main reason the Swarmin’ Hornets haven’t won more than three games prior to the New Year’s Day in any of coach Butch Marshall’s four years at the helm.
While the football players — usually around four double as basketball players — are either extending their season deep into the playoffs, participating in the Crab Bowl and various other postseason games, taking college visits or all of the above, the basketball team is generally happy to scrounge up enough players to scrimmage at the end of practice.
But, such is the life of a Damascus basketball player, and it’s one they’ve grown accustomed to at this juncture in their Swarmin’ Hornets tenure.
“If you look at our record over the last four years, we have a losing record before Christmas and a pretty good record after Christmas,” Marshall said. “But that’s what you expect at Damascus. Of course it would be nice to have 10 basketball-only players but you got to appreciate the multi-sport athletes.”
Thus far in 2014, Marshall’s post-Christmas tournament record is 8-5, though in one of those games, Richmond-bound tight end Stephon Jacob — the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-2 — was taking an official college visit.
“I feel like I’m still getting used to it,” said Jacob, who is second on the team with 13.9 points per game and averages roughly 10 rebounds, according to classmate Connor Burke. “I mean, I haven’t played basketball in so long. We play football in the summer and the fall and then we get into basketball.”
Which is why it came as nothing short of a shock to the rest of the county when then-3-8 Damascus beat then-undefeated Gaithersburg, 61-55, on Jan. 10. The Swarmin’ Hornets hadn’t been at full strength nearly the entire year to that point. That game served as the launching pad to what Jacob and Burke labeled the beginning of the rest of the season.
“It seemed like after that it clicked and everybody was playing together,” said Burke, the team’s leading scorer at 16.1 points per game. “It just takes awhile for us to come together. At tryouts we had maybe 10 guys.”
The only losses since that Gaithersburg game have come to Poolesville, Urbana, and Rockville, team’s combining for a 40-12 record and all of who are legitimate contenders to make it to the state tournament.
“The playoffs are what matters,” Marshall said. “You want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year. You lose one game and your season is over; you can lose in the regular season, you don’t win anything in the regular season. We just emphasize getting better and getting better.”
Marshall has been particularly impressed with the way Burke has taken on a more authoritative role both in the locker room and on the court. He looks for his shots and pushes the ball more — one of the advantages of having a lineup with four players below six-feet is almost always being the faster team.
Burke, Joe Daniel, and Jhames Nghonda — all left-handed players, as is Jacob, which comprises a four-lefty starting lineup — are all “point guards” at heart, says Burke, meaning Jacob or whoever else grabs the rebound has three viable outlets to look for in starting the fast break. The key, of course, is grabbing a key rebound, not always an easy task given Damascus’ relatively short squad across the board.
“If we can get the rebound — that’s the big if,” Marshall said. “We do like to run and if we can get the rebound, we try to get some numbers and run but we can’t run until we get the rebound and that’s the problem, really.”
As the regular season wound down, the coach often found himself sifting through tapes from the beginning of the season and then comparing it to what he sees now.
What he sees, he said, “is night and day.” It’s the same observation he has made every year for the past four years, and one he’ll likely make for many to come.