It's hard to find another boys' basketball team that made as big a statement on the opening night of the 2017 Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association winter season as Digital Harbor.
The Rams pulled out an 85-81 victory Dec. 5 against Patterson, which won last season's MPSSAA 2A state championship as well as the Baltimore City title. What made the win even more impressive is that it was played on Patterson's home court, where the Clippers didn't lose all last season.
The win avenged a 66-39 defeat Digital Harbor suffered against Patterson in last season's opener.
"This year we just want to stay focused on what we can do as opposed to looking at the name on our opponents' jerseys," Digital Harbor's head coach Raymond Smith said. "If we do what we're capable of doing, we will be successful. We went into that game with the mindset of knowing they're the defending city and state champs, and that it could be an opportunity to make a statement that we're prepared to make a strong run this season."
While it's only been one game, the Rams look like they could be one of the Baltimore area's breakout teams this season. They are much improved from the 2015-16 season, Smith's first as head coach, when Digital Harbor won just two games. Last year, the Rams were young but they improved to 9-12.
Smith says this is the deepest roster he's had at Digital Harbor, which factors heavily into the group's game plan for the season.
"What we want to do this year is utilize our athleticism," he said. "We're well-conditioned, and we have 10 or 12 guys who could start any given night. Our goal is to have all our guys ready to play for the entire game, all 32 minutes. We want to use that to our advantage and wear our opponents out."
The strategy paid dividends against Patterson. Last season, Patterson's high-energy defense was the key to its success, as it allowed just 40 points per game. Digital Harbor had the conditioning to combat Patterson's style, and even got some of its best performances from its players in the fourth quarter.
One player who surged as the game wore on was 6-foot-7 senior guard/forward Markus Hocker. After starting the game slowly, Hocker came through in the fourth quarter for the Rams, scoring 10 of his 16 points.
"We wanted to get Markus going early but that just didn't happen," Smith said. "He kept his composure though and finished really strong. That's the sort of intangible that can go unnoticed but was huge for us."
Late in the fourth quarter, senior small forward Donald Green, who finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, was the player the Rams leaned on the most. Green scored on three straight possessions as the fate of the game hung in the balance.
It's a role Green had a feeling he would have to take on this season for Digital Harbor.
"I just worked really hard over the summer and used all of that late in the game," Green said. "I know I'm a leader for the team, so I had to step up."
After the players left the floor at Patterson, the Rams celebrated in their locker room, though Green said the festivities were short-lived.
Digital Harbor doesn't have much time to dwell on its strong start. The Rams are playing in an early season tournament at Frederick Douglass this weekend, which will include a matchup with its Baltimore City Division II rival, National Academy Foundation. Next week, Digital Harbor faces defending MPSSAA 3A state champion Poly and Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association 'A' Conference member Mount Carmel.
The contest with NAF should be a good test to see how improved the Rams truly are. Last season, Digital Harbor finished tied with NAF for second place in the division, but NAF got to play in the division championship game as a result of beating the Rams earlier in the season.
Smith's first major goal for the team is to win the Baltimore City Division II championship. If Digital Harbor accomplishes that, it will be in good position to make some noise in the MPSSAA 3A state playoffs.
"It's about the mental prep and staying focused," Smith said. "I feel like my guys got tested big time against Patterson, but I kept stressing to stay focused, and they were able to do it. If we remain focused on our goals, we'll have a good season."
Photo Credit: Raymond Smith/Courtesy Photo