There was a time, not too long ago, when Walter Johnson High School's basketball program was not known for producing stars. About the only memorable seasons for the Spartans were 1979 and 1980 when Al McKinney and Tony Rodriguez led the boys team into the state playoffs. The varsity girls struggled for several years and even went winless one season.
That has changed noticeably this winter. The Bethesda school is home to two of the area's top players: center Leslie Miller, who is among the top five girls in Montgomery County in both scoring and rebounding, and Brian Hutchens, also known for his scoring (he leads the county with more than 25 points per game) and rebounding.
If anything, the two have provided some respect for Walter Johnson's revived basketball program, though the teams' on-the-court success has been moderate so far this season. Still, Hutchens and Miller at least make their teams contenders for the state's Class B title.
"I think it's good for the school," says Hutchens. "Maybe some of the younger kids at the feeder schools will choose to come (to Walter Johnson) if they know we have a good program here."
A senior, Miller is one of fourth-year Coach Mike O'Brien's original players and one he feels has lived up to the potential shown when she was younger. O'Brien has been building the girls team back from the depths of a zero-for-23 streak. Mostly because of Miller, he doesn't know if he will have a better shot than this year.
"She is a dominant offensive player, she's showed me so much," O'Brien said. "She has phenomenal upper-body movement. A lot of teams double-team her, but it doesn't keep her from keeping her average up.
"She is one of the most intense people I have ever coached," he adds. "Very, very competitive, hard-working, very demanding of herself and others. That's the kind of commitment I want out of my players."
Miller depends on teammates Wendy Schaefer and Michelle Barnes to share much of the offensive burden, but when she was injured in the Einstein holiday tournament and was out for 10 days, the team lost its rhythm and had a hard time winning.
Miller (averaging more than 23 points per game) broke her finger while going for a rebound in a semifinal victory over Richard Montgomery. In the championship against Einstein, the Spartans were close for a half, but without Miller, they were worn down and lost by 12. They were then beaten by Seneca Valley by 14 points, but, when Miller returned, she scored 16 points in a 65-62 win over Magruder.
Part of Miller's success is her height. At 6 feet, she is able to outreach many of her opponents and averages 11 rebounds per game. Still, she is slim and opponents have tried to use double-teaming or physical play to keep her away from the basket.
"It gets tiring," Miller says, laughing. "When two guys cover me, I get pushed around a lot and I have to try really hard to keep my position or box out. But I think I'm able to adjust pretty well. Besides, if they worry about me too much, I just push the ball back out to Michelle and she hits the jumper. We have enough variety on our team to keep defenses off-balance."
Surrounded by younger, inexperienced players, Hutchens has had to take on various roles for the boys, especially earlier in the season. The team has improved since an 0-3 start, but even when he is at his best, as in his 41-point effort last Tuesday against Magruder, the Spartans have sometimes come up short. Inconsistency has hurt the team, though it can contend, judging by its six-point victory two weeks ago against AA power Seneca Valley.
To Hutchens' credit, his widespread success has not gone to his head. Most high school players with his kind of career statistics could have misconceptions about their talents, but Hutchens is low-key.
"I get along with everyone on the team, nobody's an ego," he says. "We've all got our roles and we accept them. If there's a problem, I feel we can talk them out. There's no reason for me to be cocky."
Despite his statistics, Hutchens is one of those "in-between" players. He can dominate at the high school level, but his size (6-4) means he's too small to be a college forward and he may not be a good enough perimeter shooter to be a top college guard.
"It will be a transition, I know that," Hutchens says, "but I'll deal with that when I get to it. Right now, my role is to play inside and work for everything I can. Wherever I have to be to win, I go. I like it down where the big boys play, you know, grind it out and fight to do anything for a rebound. I know I won't be able to do that if I play in college, but that's my style. And that's the way I have to play now."
Added his coach, Hal Templeton: "Brian can do a little bit of everything for us. He can play the power game, get the rebounds, shoot a little bit from the outside and we have even had him bring the ball upcourt.