At first, Andre Fox couldn't really find the words to describe how exactly his Eleanor Roosevelt High School boys' basketball team has created the dynasty that has reigned over Prince George's County for the past eight years.
Because how do you explain how a public school, bound by the talent within its district lines, can win four straight region titles, and play in eight straight region championship games?
“I mean,” he said, pausing before deciding to simplify the matter, “We just know how to win games.”
In dozens of conversations throughout the year about the status of the league, the new hierarchy forming for 2014, what teams are on the up and other not so, every single 4A coach with no exceptions would say a similar version of the same thing: you can never count out Brendan O'Connell and his Eleanor Roosevelt High School Raiders.
Rob Garner, who led Henry A. Wise to a berth in tonight's county championship, was the first to make it clear — this past summer — that Roosevelt, even after graduating its top six scorers from the Class 4A state title team of 2013, would be the standard-bearer. Even if the Raiders didn't win a single game, he said, they would be the team to beat come playoff time for no other reason than because it's Roosevelt.
“It's always Roosevelt,” he said during a summer league game last June. “That guy is too good. They have an excellent coaching staff. I don't have an offseason because I can't. Not when I want to beat that guy.”
The reputation has been earned. Since 2001, the Raiders have won eight region and two state titles, making the finals on three other occasions. Even Randallstown, who claimed four Maryland crowns from 2001-2007, hasn't won that many region titles in that span. O'Connell, of course, was quick to deflect the credit.
“I think there's just so many factors going into it but I think having a winning tradition helps,” he said. “It gets the next group of kids ready. We have a great [junior varsity] program which prepares the kids for the varsity level. We have a bunch of kids who buy into what we're trying to do.”
While his players both former and present attribute a number of variables to the Raiders' unparalleled success for the better part of the decade, O'Connell was nearly always their No. 1.
“He has really been the reason for that,” said Trevor Evans, the sharpshooting guard from the 2013 state championship team. “I know this year you guys probably expected a fall off but he got us right back to where we were last year pretty much.”
To get the Raiders back to the Comcast Center, though, would be an extraordinary accomplishment, even for O'Connell. Under the new section format, Roosevelt will have to slug its way through Suitland in the opener, Wise in the second round, and either Charles H. Flowers, Bowie, or Oxon Hill in the section finals. And that's not even guaranteeing a trip to Comcast. After all that, chances are there will be either DuVal or Parkdale to beat in the region finals.
“I don't put any pressure on it,” O'Connell said of extending his streak of region titles to five. “It's a different team, it's a different year. I don't really think about the streak much. It's been more than four years since it started so none of these kids were even there at the start.”
Evans hopes to make it back from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to catch a playoff game or two this week. Mostly, though, he wants to ensure the Roosevelt legacy continues.
“I hope it doesn't stop, either,” he said. “I hope it keeps going for another few years. People expect us to be on top, it's expected now I guess that we win. I know I expected to win. It's a lot to put on your shoulders. When we lose, [the students] are probably just as shocked as we are because the teachers get involved, the faculty gets involved, everybody is into it.”
And that could be the very reason Roosevelt has lost so few times this year despite nearly every player being thrust into unfamiliar roles. Even O'Connell and Fox thought it might have taken a month or two for his Raiders to come together.
“We had a really tough schedule out of the gate and it was tough on them,” the coach said. “Every year, everyone wants to beat Roosevelt but this year, being the defending state champs, we get everyone's best effort every night. We always want to be the team that people want to beat.”
If what his peers are saying is true, that's been a goal accomplished for some time now.