The term "junior" generally hints at potential, a stop en route to something greater -- junior varsity, junior partner, junior college. When you see that qualifier, you pretty much know that whatever level that is, it is not the apex.
Even so, it would be a huge mistake to dismiss the current junior class of boys' basketball players in Prince William County with a wait-until-next-year shrug.
These juniors have arrived.
Key contributors as sophomores, and, in some cases, full-fledged stars, the junior year is when they should blossom from precocious talents who have piqued the interest of college recruiters into bona fide prospects and team leaders, a thrilling passage pocked with loftier expectations and the beginning of a more serious basketball existence.
Explosive forward Jason Flagler, who scored 33 points in Potomac's season opener, Panthers shooting guard Bryan Butler and well-rounded Woodbridge guard Daniel Fountain lead a touted class that also includes Gar-Field guard Chris Vann and forward Greg Tekampe, Hylton forward Jermaine Hill, Forest Park guard Kenny Carter, Osbourn Park forward Jon Pierce and Woodbridge guard Chris Kendall, among others.
"The bottom line is, everybody in that group is very capable of going on and playing college basketball," 18th-year Potomac coach Kendall Hayes said when a list of local juniors was rattled off to him. "I'm not sure what level they all fit into, but that's a real, real solid outstanding group of juniors in the area this year. I don't know that we've had a class that's that good in a long time."
"If they are potential college players, then their junior years give them a chance to divide themselves from the others," Woodbridge Coach Will Robinson said. "They now get a chance to place themselves in a category -- Division I, II or III, or juco. That junior year's important in regard to their contributions and how they play and how mature their game has become."
Last season, four of the top five scorers in the county's two AAA districts were sophomores. In contrast, you had to go 24 deep on the scoring list to find the fourth junior (the current senior class).
As first- or second-year varsity players, and with plenty of veterans around, many of the sophomores were not necessarily asked to do much more than learn the system and contribute. Now the demands are far greater -- in performance, intangibles and academic standing.
"Your best players should be able to make the other kids on their team better," Hayes said. "That more than anything determines what kind of season you can have and what kind of player they are overall. Are they doing it at the expense of their teammates, or doing it in a manner that not only helps them but makes their teammates better as well?
"Academically, it's a real big year for these guys because if their grades aren't maybe where they need to be after their freshman and sophomore years, the junior year is your make-or-break year in terms of academics and being a qualifier," added Hayes, echoing the sentiments of many area coaches. "It's a real big year for all these guys, maybe more so for a lot off the court than on the court."
Gar-Field's Vann, who sat the bench as a freshman to better soak in the varsity atmosphere and tangle daily in practice with older teammates, led the Indians last year in points scored. This season, the roster calls him a junior. Coach Andy Gray does not.
"He'll pretty much be treated like a senior," Gray said. "He should be ready to assume lots and lots of responsibility. Essentially, he won't be treated like he's got another year remaining. He's basically going to get all senior rights and privileges."
Robinson also judges a player by his abilities and potential, not by his birth certificate. So for Fountain, that means heightened demands, even though there are eight players on the team older than he is.
"The stakes are higher simply because he's placed himself in position to be a Division I prospect, not because he's gotten older," Robinson said. "We have kids who get older in our program each year and graduate in our program. With kids who separate themselves as college prospects, then the expectations are higher in every regard. Daniel's going to be asked to do more each and every year because of the position he's put himself in. That comes with the territory."
The juniors have been made well aware of these expectations. The challenge lies in not allowing the added demands to usurp the joy from a sport that to this point in their lives has mostly been a game, not a potential ticket to college.
Flagler, perhaps the athletic gem of the bunch, summarizes the conflicting nature of his new reality.
"I think being a junior is exciting, but then again it's not," he said. "It's exciting in that you've got to go out and play hard, and they'll be looking for you more on the court, but then again it's not because you've got a lot of high expectations from everybody, and you wouldn't want to let everybody down. It's fun, though. . . . Right now it's big, but it's not too big."
"I understand it is a big year," said Fountain, who in the past several months has gone to Five-Star Camp in Pennsylvania, the Eastern Invitational in New Jersey and the 16-under AAU nationals in Michigan. "There's a lot of things expected out of me my junior year, but I'm not trying to deal with any college situation or anything because I feel that that could [interfere] with how I play. If there was a scout in the stands, that would affect my game because I'd be playing for him and not just playing."
Other than receiving letters, and updates from their high school coaches about colleges that have expressed interest, the juniors have been fairly immune from the recruiting process so far. For instance, according to the NCAA Web site, a Division I men's basketball coach may not telephone a prospect until March of the player's junior year.
"Whenever me or Jason get letters and stuff, a lot of people come up to us [and say], 'Oh, you got a letter from Maryland' or wherever," said Potomac's Butler, who guesses he has received 50 to 75 pieces of mail, some from such schools as Maryland and Michigan. "But Coach Hayes told us that letters don't mean anything really until you get a phone call. Just put them in a shoe box and keep going. I haven't even read all the letters I have."
One local product who underwent the recruiting process not so long ago is Forest Park Coach Brion Dunlap, a 1994 Woodbridge graduate and point guard who helped lead Old Dominion to two NCAA tournament appearances.
"You can't put added pressure on yourself," Dunlap said. "Just go out and continue to do what you do.
"Just understand [that] you'll have eyes watching you a little more than before."