by Matt Palmer
"I just tell them '41' and they know what that means," Lewis said.
That's the number of points that his team lost to county leader Centennial by earlier this season. It's a reminder that for all the growth his team has undergone this season, there is still a long way to go.
"A loss can be a learning experience," junior captain Kevin Gibson said. "Some losses can even propel your season."
That certainly seems to be the case with Oakland Mills.
There is no denying the Scorpions are one of the feel-good stories of the season. After suffering through a 7-13 county record last year, the team entered this week with a 10-4 record both in county games and overall. They are just two games behind Centennial for the county lead and a game back from Long Reach, whom they play Feb. 4.
"It's just a new outlook," said Lewis, a 1988 graduate of Oakland Mills and in his second year as the boys coach. "We're just trying to get better with each game. It beats last year, that's for sure."
Coming into the season, the Scorpions were something of an unknown. The team had a promising young nucleus of players who hadn't won on the varsity basketball level. Despite being three years removed from a Class 1A state final appearance, the program was trying to find its way and some leaders.
Before the season, the coaches selected Gibson to be one of the team captains. Gibson, a member of last year's squad, had tasted championship success on the soccer field at the school. The struggles on the court in 2003-04 were a change of pace for the 6-foot-4 star.
"When your on one winning team, you'd like to carry that over to your other team," he said.
Gibson, along with guards Tim Hiteshew, Nick Finney and David Pearman provided hope. So far this season, Gibson and Pearman are each averaging over eight points a contest. Finney, a junior who was forced to play in the post last year, has moved to a more natural wing position.
Gibson said that last year's struggles made the team stronger.
"I think we all grew up a little bit," he said.
It also helps that this year Oakland Mills has a Player of the Year contender in Jamal John, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound forward who transferred to the school from Germany last fall. John, a senior, has averaged 18.2 points and 9.4 rebounds a contest in becoming an immediate impact player.
Lewis said a friend had told him about John, who is a member of a military family, a few weeks before the start of the school year. When Lewis finally met him, he was immediately impressed with John's physical stature.
"He looked good when I saw him," Lewis said. "I didn't know how he would be on the court."
The answer came rather quickly.
"I knew on the first day of practice that he would be good," Lewis said. "I could see the way he was getting up and down the court. It didn't take him long."
John also made an impression on his teammates, who voted him co-captain with Gibson.
"That says a lot about his character," Lewis said.
John has also earned the respect of county coaches. In two games with Howard, he scored a combined 54 points. In a win over Long Reach, he notched 21.
"He's tough," Long Reach coach Al Moraz Jr. said. "That kid's a monster."
In order for the Scorpions to be successful, the team also needed a point guard to make Lewis' high-octane offense run smoothly. He got that in Mount St. Joseph transfer Derek Murphy, who has adeptly guided the team on the floor.
"We were missing a true point guard and a post presence," Lewis said of last year's team. "(John and Murphy) came in and gave that to us."
Perhaps the two biggest games of the season came without the services of those two players. The Scorpions, already a team that wins close contests, held off Glenelg Jan. 26, 42-40, without Murphy. Then, they beat River Hill Jan. 28, 52-46, sans John, who was suffering from a viral infection.
"Those games were measuring tools," Lewis said. "The guys had to learn that one person doesn't necessarily make a team. I really think they grew last week."
Gibson said those wins gave the rest of the team confidence.
"It brought the team together," he said. "We proved a point. It's always nice to show we're not a one-man team."
The upcoming Long Reach game looms large for Oakland Mills, though Lewis said his team doesn't pay attention to the standings. The two schools, which had close battles last season, already have a friendly intense rivalry.
Lewis knows the fact that his team beat Long Reach, the defending county champs, 49-48, earlier this season at Oakland Mills only increases the stakes.
"You know what you are going to get with Long Reach-Oakland Mills," Lewis said. "The atmosphere is always great. I think it's awesome."
Lewis seems most pleased with the fact that all of the kids who remained loyal to the program are tasting victory.
"It's good to be with the guys who went through last year," he said. "They're a year older and bit more mature."
E-mail Matt Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.