Kareem Downs said he's used to proving himself.
The Glen Burnie junior was on last season's basketball team -- a team that had lost nine seniors and still managed a 15-8 season, falling to eventual state semifinalist Old Mill in the 4A East Region semifinals.
Downs was also part of the team that witnessed a basketball miracle last season when teammate Scott Matthews scored 10 points in 9.8 seconds in a game against Chesapeake. Matthews hit a three-pointer and then another three with a free throw tacked onto the end. With two seconds to play, Glen Burnie trailing by one point, Chesapeake in possession and the stands emptying of fans, Matthews stole the inbounds pass and launched an 80-foot prayer that fell through the net for an astonishing win.
Matthews and three other starters are gone this year. But after last season's experience, Downs and the other Gophers know a little bit about perseverance. A little bit about resilience.
"Most people didn't think we were going to do that good," said Downs. "They said, 'Glen Burnie is going to [stink] this year,' but we came out and did pretty good. . . . We have high expectations for our team. We'll be real good this year. And once again, no one thinks we're going to be good. We'll have to prove ourselves once again."
As the only returning starter, Downs may carry a larger burden than his teammates. Adding to that burden, he's also the team's point guard, an expected leader on the floor. But with him this year is what Glen Burnie Coach Mike Rudd called a group of "pretty solid underclassmen," including junior swingman Garrett Blackstone, a player Rudd said can play inside and out.
"He's so nonchalant he doesn't even know how good he is," Rudd said.
There's also junior Desean Antoine, a 6-3 forward, and 6-4 sophomore Antoine Wekpe, "a tremendous leaper" by Rudd's standards.
And the senior class is not devoid of talent. Senior post player Marvin Mitchell gave a glimpse of what he might be able to do for the Gophers at a preseason practice. During defensive drills, Mitchell crossed over on his defender and went to the basket, finishing with a strong layup and a yelp of glee.
Mitchell and the other three seniors may have to step up as leaders in games and in practice if the Gophers are to match last season's success, because what the Gophers' lineup lacks is experience.
The team's youth "is going to affect us a little bit as the season goes on," said Blackstone. But "I think our young guys are going to step up, and it won't be as much of a factor as it was in the beginning."
Said Rudd: "We're extremely young, but I'm very, very happy from what I'm seeing. You'd better get us early, because once we get playing experience we're going to get tough. It's going to take us a minute to grow up."