History was made on the basketball court at Harford Community College Feb. 25 when Gerstell Academy beat Severn School, 62-53, to win the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association "B" conference championship.
Gerstell, which is located in Finksburg, Md., and was founded in 1996, had never won a league championship in boys' basketball during the program's previous seven years.
Despite having just 169 students enrolled in the upper school, the Falcons, who finished the season 20-10, were supported by a raucous fan section from start to finish during the championship. The group was comprised not just of students, but a plethora of individuals associated with Gerstell, including the school's administration, faculty, alums and custodians.
When the final buzzer sounded, both Gerstell's coaches and players were blown away by the sheer joy emanating from their fan section.
"It was definitely a dream come true," senior forward Brad Witt said. "I took a moment to absorb it all. We had a big crowd, my family was there, too, and it's just something that I'm going to remember for a long time. The coolest thing has been walking into our classes this week and having teachers shake our hands and congratulate us, knowing they were there to witness it."
Though the Falcons' journey had the ending every high school basketball team dreams of, the group had to navigate a difficult road to get there.
Gerstell endured a brutal out-of-conference schedule to start the season, facing numerous state powerhouses, such as St. Frances, McDonogh, Milford Mill and Woodlawn. That tough schedule was by design, as fourth-year head coach Ben Thompson was confident heading into the season that Gerstell could compete for the MIAA "B" conference championship, and he wanted his group to be ready for conference play.
While Thompson thought his team would take some lumps during that stretch, he didn't expect it to struggle quite as much as it did. The Falcons were competitive in most games but had trouble closing out contests, and entered the Bob Eckert Winter Classic at Patterson High School with a 2-8 record.
That's when Gerstell began to turn its season around. The Falcons beat Hammond in the tournament's opening contest, which led to an appearance in the championship game against another powerhouse, Perry Hall. This time, Gerstell was able to come away with a 61-52 win, topping the Gators, who won the 2017 Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association 4A state tournament.
"That victory changed the whole run of our season," senior guard Colin Rimel said. "We were questioning ourselves, struggling and frustrated. When we came together to achieve a great team win it helped show us what we could accomplish this season."
Those two wins at Patterson spearheaded a 12-game win streak for Gerstell, which catapulted the group toward the top of the conference standings.
A key for the group's success was its balance. Rimel, who had a team-high 15 points during the conference championship game, led the way with 11.2 points per game, but five other Falcons averaged at least 6.5 points per game.
"We had lots of balance, and every night it could be a different guy leading us," Thompson said. "Our attention to detail was superb. We were able to consistently come in with an effective game plan that the coaches crafted, and we have great kids who could go execute it."
That execution was on display against Severn, especially on defense. Severn had two seniors in guard LJ Owens and forward Jermaine Hall, who both did plenty of damage against Gerstell during the regular season.
The coaching staff devised an unorthodox defensive scheme to try to slow down Severn's dynamic duo. Gerstell ran a zone defense that shifted according to where Owens and Hall were on the floor. The strategy proved effective, as Owens and Hall combined to score 32 points, but Severn's offense was out of sync from the opening whistle.
Gerstell meanwhile jumped out to an early lead it never relinquished, as Rimel hit two 3-pointers in the opening minute. The Falcons also got a standout performance from Witt, who finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
"The biggest reason for our success was dropping our egos at the door and playing together as one," Witt said.
Though the Falcons will miss seniors such as Rimel, Witt and guard Khyle Washington, Thompson doesn't foresee the program stagnating.
Gerstell returns nine players next season, including guards Ahmad Harrison and Karell Booker, who were big contributors as freshmen this year. Gerstell's JV team also won its league championship this season, and finished the year 15-1.
"We have some talented pieces coming through our system," Thompson said. "Between what we have returning and the promise of what is to come with the next group, we're very excited about our future."
Photo Credit: Shane Stem/Courtesy Photo