South Lakes High School's boys basketball team has not had a losing season since the school opened 10 years ago. Another thing the Seahawks have not had is a regional boys basketball championship. But this season, with the inside-outside combination of Grant Hill and Jerome Scott and a team deep with role players, the Seahawks could do just that.
The Seahawks, who have won 66 of 88 games under fourth-year coach Wendell Byrd, sported a 14-2 record (9-1 in the Great Falls District) going into last Tuesday's game against Madison. They have won games in many different ways, and with many different lineups. But two constants for the club have been Hill, a 6-foot-6 1/2 sophomore who averages 21.5 points and 12 rebounds a game, and Scott, a 6-3 senior who has seen time at both guard positions and is averaging 21 points and four assists.
Hill, a 15-year old forward, who used to attend the team's games back in junior high, hardly looks intimidating with braces and a slender frame. His size 16 feet give indications of more growth in the future, and right now he has proved quite a tower of power. He is shooting close to 57 percent from the field, 83 percent from the free throw line while averaging 2.2 assists and 1.3 blocked shots per game.
His scoring and rebound averages have doubled and he has grown two inches since last year, when he played more of a supporting role. Now he often finds himself with responsibilites of defending the opposition's top scoring threat, or even manning the point on defense in the team's press. Already, college letters have come pouring in from many Division I schools, including Louisville and the University of Virginia.
"The difference between this year and last year is all up here," said Hill, pointing to his head. "At first I didn't want to play on the varsity as a freshman. It took me a while to get comfortable."
Two summers ago he helped his 13-and-under AAU squad win the championship at nationals. Last summer the team, which also included area players Jamie Warren (a freshman starter at West Springfield) and Mark Meyer (a freshman starter at O'Connell), finished second with Hill taking home most valuable player honors.
"Grant gives us a dimension we've never had here," Byrd says. "When you can kick it inside to Grant it puts a lot of pressure on a defense.
"Our teams in the past had a lot of good athletes but never as much height. It changes the complexion of things."
Grant Hill, whose father Calvin starred first at Yale and then in the National Football League as a running back for the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns, never developed an interest in football.
"I wasn't allowed to play football until I was 14, just like my dad," Grant Hill said. "By that time my interest had faded. Soccer was my sport until I became too awkward (with my height)."
"His experience in soccer has really helped him in basketball," said Calvin Hill, who is Vice President for Personnel Administration for the Baltimore Orioles. "Because in soccer you learn to use your body and your feet to play defense.
"Sometimes he does things and its hard to believe that half of my chromosomes are in his body. I'm the athlete in the family and I could never do the things he can."
"He handles the situation well," West Springfield's Jim Warren says, "but he has a pretty good role model in his father."
Scott, a three-year starter, has been part of two Great Falls District tournament champion teams, but both times the team lost in the first round of the regional tournament.
He is the school's second all-time leading scorer (behind former Georgetown star Michael Jackson, now with the Sacramento Kings of the NBA) with over 1,100 points. He has taken on more responsibilities in his senior season, moving over to play point guard at times. After a slow start when foul trouble limited his minutes, he has been scoring consistently in the 20's.
"They are similar," Byrd says of Jackson's and Scott's talents. "Jerome is more of a penetrator and scorer, though he's not selfish. Michael was more of a pure point guard.
"Jerome has really refined his game," Byrd said. "He is a good athlete that really has worked year-round to get where he is."
Scott is also being pursued by several Division I schools, but says his preference is Georgetown. He impressed many with his showing at last summer's Nike Invitational camp.
To go with the pair, Byrd has 5-11 junior Michael Ellison, who starts at point guard. Junior David Jones, also 5-11, fills the small forward spot, and is an active defensive player. Chip Crawford, a 6-9 center, averages only six points a game but plays solid defense and enables Hill to play big forward.
Junior Rob Robinson (6-5) is the team's third leading scorer (eight points per game) as the team's first player off the bench. His presence allows Byrd to go to a quicker, pressing lineup. David Harris (a 6-4 forward), and guards Rob Darrow and Mike Byrd also give Byrd flexiblity to subsitute and take advantage of matchups.
"You just take your chances on a defense to see if it works because they have so many ways to hurt you," Langley Coach Joey Hite says. "If you play a zone they beat you from the outside. If you play man-to-man they pound it inside."
"This could be the team that does it," Byrd says about a regional championship. Scott, who remembers the first round regional losses, added, "This is my last season and I want to go out with a bang."
Byrd cites many factors why his team can go a long way -- a strong district preparing them for the tournament, a more mature team, and a dominant inside force. But the coach also realizes the importance of keeping his team on an even keel.
"I realize that we get a lot of press," Byrd says, "So I remind the kids that because of that we are the team that everyone wants to beat. Sometimes kids get big heads because of the recognition. I remind them to deflate the ego a little.
"I just tell the kids that if we come out to play hard and solid basketball every night it is going to make it difficult for the other team to beat us."