In the realm of big-time Athletic Amateur Union (AAU) boys basketball, Howard County doesn’t really strike fear into any hearts on the national radar. But that changed thanks to the HCYP Elite Under-17 squad that went on an amazing run in the AAU Junior Nationals held in Orlando in late July.
In a world where AAU teams are sponsored by shoe companies like Nike or professional ballers like Carmelo Anthony, HCYP had to raise money to fund their summer basketball endeavors. Facing squads that at times boasted three or four players Division I players, none of HCYP Elite’s 13 players held a single scholarship offer before the tournament.
Somehow, in a field of heavyweights, HCYP Elite took the Nationals by storm. In a span of 10 days, the team finished third in the nation and knocked off some top teams from all over the country along the way.
“We didn’t have the talent level as some of the other teams but it all came together,” said head coach Bill Napolitano. “We were the underdog in every game and had nothing to lose.”
It’s been a whirlwind summer for the team that has mostly been intact for five years. Players like Varun Ram (River Hill), Joe Kiely (Oakland Mills) and Ryan McTavish (South Carroll) five years. Zach Neal (Mt. Hebron) and Kevin Yu (Marriotts Ridge) have been on the team since fourth grade.
To qualify for the Nationals, they took down the Baltimore Stars to win the Maryland State AAU Championship to qualify for the National Tournament. It’s rare to find a team from Baltimore that doesn’t win the state title.
“We’ve been playing in these big tournaments for a while now and you have to beat the top teams to progress,” said head coach Bill Napolitano said. “We just kept progressing.”
This year’s Junior Nationals began with 226 teams in the top Division. In the first round, HCYP Elite knocked off the Carolina Raptors 62-60. Don’t think the Raptors were a slouch, after losing to HYCP, the Raptors went to the Consolation bracket claim that title.
As the teams dwindled, the underdog squad found themselves in the final eight, then the final four.
“College coaches were there to see the other teams and ended up becoming fans of ours,” Napolitano said. “Each time we played those good teams, the kids knew they could win. We just kept winning, one after the other.”
“This is our third time as a team playing in AAU Nationals so we knew what to expect when we went down to Florida this year,” said guard Varun Ram. “The competition is incredible and you get to play so many different teams from so many different places. It’s an extremely different atmosphere playing in nationals because it takes place during the NCAA Live Recruiting Period. You see so many coaches and when you play you have to give it your all because you never know who’s watching you.”
Oakland Mills rising senior Greg Whittington, a 6-foot-8 forward, made one of the biggest impressions out of all the players in the tournament. Whittington, in the mold of Kevin Durant according to Napolitano, was recognized as a Surprise Player according to ESPN for his efforts. Since returning home, Oakland Mills’ coach Jon Browne has to make sure his cell phone is fully charged. Schools like Clemson and Maryland among others have Browne on speed dial.
After falling to the Carolina Ravens 78-66 in the semifinals, HCYP Elite defeated the Connecticut Basketball Club 69-67 to finish third in the Country.
“Overall I am so greatful that all of our team’s hard work has finally paid off,” said Ram. “No one, except for ourselves, thought that we could make it as far and play at the level of competition that we did.”
He added: “Coach Napolitano spent countless hours over the past 4-7 years coaching and preparing us for this unforgettable experience and without him none of this would have been possible.”
HCYP Elite Roster
Joe Kiely, Oakland Mills
Greg Whittington, Oakland Mills
Varun Ram, River Hill.
Jordan Knisley, River Hill
Zack Neal, Mt Hebron
Ryan McTavish, South Carroll
Dan Nardolillo, Mt St Joseph
Nick Doolin, Randallstown
Shane Kelleher, Glenelg
Ben Jordon, Glenelg Country School.
Kevin Yu, Marriotts Ridge
Alex Standrowicz, Howard
Tadas Pakalniskis, Howard