Churchill boys have titles to defend and hunger for the one they missed


When the Churchill football team lost in the Maryland 4A state quarterfinals on Nov. 18, five of its players attended their first basketball practice of the winter the next morning. They showed up disappointed from the loss but still carrying the intensity that comes with the playoffs — an energy that infected and reignited the rest of their boys’ basketball team.

The Bulldogs got ready to drill one of their signature plays from a year ago, a set senior guard Ezekiel Avit said had become “muscle memory.” Avit, also a star wide receiver and University of Maryland football commit, helped the Bulldogs execute it perfectly on his first day back on the court. The play always puts a smile on his face because it almost always works.

“Everybody was moving [fluidly] and just understanding where they had to be,” fellow senior guard Isaiah Mbeng said. After they finished running the play, Mbeng thought to himself: “We’re going to be really good this year.”

Mbeng and Avit form the starting backcourt for a Churchill squad that tipped off the new season Tuesday with a 64-49 triumph over Gaithersburg in Potomac.

The Bulldogs are trying to build off last season, when they won county and region titles but ended the year disappointed after losing in the 4A state final to Eleanor Roosevelt. Avit spent at least two hours each day for more than a week reviewing the game’s film, he said, trying to see what he and his team could have done differently to change the result.

“We were just waiting for this day so we could get back to it,” he said.

He and the rest of the Bulldogs’ returning talent embraced a grueling summer to launch their title defenses and revenge tour.

That quest began as Coach David Blumenthal and the team readied to send their seniors off at the end-of-year banquet, just two days after that gutting five-point double-overtime loss to the Raiders. The coach received a text from Mbeng hours before the event started, and while neither remembered the exact wording, the message was clear.

We’re ready to get back to work.

“We just knew that once the game was over, it was right back to it,” Mbeng said. “We got a lot of our guys coming back, can’t hang our head on [the loss] too much. I mean, we know it hurt, but we got more business to take care of this year.”

Joy mixed with sorrow at the banquet as the players walked past all their awards and accomplishments. But then they faced the runner-up trophy at the end, a constant reminder of the one challenge they failed to complete.

The Bulldogs sent off their seniors and then validated Mbeng’s text to Blumenthal, getting in the gym the next week.

Blumenthal and the other coaches recognized the work as a manifestation of their team’s hunger. The players’ desire allowed the coaches to develop an aggressive summer plan that included a stint in the Capitol Hoops Summer League.

The Bulldogs regrouped after Memorial Day for official summer practices and impressed Blumenthal with their energy in drills and retained knowledge of the team’s system and intricacies.

Months later, they’re doing so again, this time with a season-opening win in hand.

“I was very proud of our guys being able to … figure out their pressure and be able to figure out where we can make enough plays,” Blumenthal said after Tuesday’s victory over Gaithersburg. “We made them, so that was nice.”

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