Cumberland Times-News

March 14, 2008

Sentinels hoping to go over the top today

Mike Mathews

A year ago almost to the day, the Fort Hill Sentinels turned plenty of heads and made a giant statement in defeat.

Today they hope to do the same in victory.

The Maryland Class 1A boys basketball state tournament tips off this afternoon at the Comcast Center, where again coach Todd Eirich's West Region champs are only two victories from the school's first basketball state title since 1958.

Last year, likely in one of the more memorable 1A games in tournament history, the Sentinels took 11-time state champion Dunbar to overtime before bowing out, 73-71, in the semifinals. The Poets needed a bucket with three seconds left in regulation to force the overtime, and rallied from a five-point deficit in the extra period.

Dunbar won the game but the Sentinels, with inspired play led by Jordan Brooks, left with a few more fans than they came with that Friday afternoon.

Brooks did just about everything and hit 11 of 20 shots and 9 of 10 free throws for a game-high 35 points before fouling out in overtime.

There's no way, especially after that game, that Brooks and the Sentinels could sneak up on anybody today.

But Surrattsville could. Pay no attention to their record.

Eleven and eleven. And that's after three wins in the South Region tournament.

"Everybody's good at this point. No one gets this far, no one gets to the state tournament as a fluke,'' said Eirich. "We told our kids that, and they understand. Surrattsville plays in a good Prince George's County 2A-3A league, so there's no doubt they're a very good team."

Getting to the state tournament was Fort Hill's pre-season goal. Now the goal changes. The last time Fort Hill won a state tournament game a left-hander named Charles Driesell was in his fourth season as head coach at Maryland, Richard Nixon was in the White House just down the road, and the average price of a gallon of gasoline was 38.8 cents.

The year was 1973 and Fort Hill, coached by current athletic director Paul Green, beat Wicomico 72-65 in the semifinals before losing to Southern Harwood in the final, 30-24.

"No one wants to lose, and we really wanted to get to College Park like last year,'' Jordan Brooks said after the West Region championship game. "This season's been tough. It wasn't an easy trip to get here."

To get "here," Eirich had to fill the holes left by four senior starters from a year ago. Fort Hill, as the defending region champion and with Brooks returning after winning player of the year honors as a junior, was a pre-season favorite in the West.

But last year's team averaged 71 points per game, and this year's returning players had accounted for only 31 of those 71 - 24 of them coming from Brooks.

Names like Zach Blank, Steven Iser, Richie Shook and Anthony Weisenmiller were replaced by Jordan Helmick, Darren Graham, Ryan Brooks and Cory McCarty in the starting five. Devin Lee, Mike Durr, L.T. White and Ryan Freeman have made key contributions off the bench.

The result: a 23-3 season followed by a 23-2 season, four league championships, two region titles, two state tournaments trips, one area championship, and another all but guaranteed.

"We had the player of the year coming back, and everybody likes to be in that position,'' said Eirich. "But those four new starters and those coming off the bench have done a great job. I am very happy about their play."

Ryan Brooks said he knows one of the Sentinels' biggest keys to success: getting off on the right foot, and quickly.

"That was the biggest key against Poolesville,'' said the junior guard, who didn't miss a shot in a 15-point first half Saturday night. "We had to get off to a good start. Every playoff game we've gotten off to a fast start. It's given us an advantage that we've been able to keep throughout the whole game. It pretty much got us the 'W' (against Poolesville), because we were a bit sluggish in the second half."

Eirich believes playing the second game today may be a bit of an aid for his team, too.

"I think it might be more comfortable for our guys to watch the first game,'' he said. "I think when you play the first game, you get there and you can feel a little bit rushed. This year we can watch Dunbar and Snow Hill play and I think that will be a good thing for us, especially for the ones who have never been this far."

Contact Mike Mathews at mmathews@times-news.com.