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Howard County Times 2023-24 boys basketball All-County: Long Reach senior Jayden Saunders led Lightning to new heights

Apr. 11—By Jacob Steinberg — jsteinberg@baltsun.com

April 11, 2024 at 6:00 a.m.

Don't be fooled by Long Reach senior guard Jayden Saunders' smaller size and quiet demeanor. He can take over a game at any moment.

That game-changing ability relies on something you can't quantify: confidence. The 5 feet, 10 inch guard's self-belief has grown immensely each season.

The senior helped guide the program to new heights, capturing the program's first regional title and state semifinal berth since 2008. He averaged a team-leading 21.6 points per game while shooting 50% from the floor and 84% at the free-throw line.

Saunders scored at least 18 points in 20 of the Lightning's 26 games and scored 30-plus three times, including twice in the playoffs. Saving his best for his final season, Saunders is the 2023-24 Howard County Times boys basketball Player of the Year.

"I take a lot of pride in that," Saunders said. "A lot of people, when they see me, they think, 'Oh, he's probably not that good. He's short.' I try to just let my game do the talking and go out there and play no matter what."

Saunders' speed and athleticism immediately jumped out as a sophomore on junior varsity. However, those traits could only take him so far.

Long Reach assistant coaches Brandon Roberson and Aaron Bellamy told Saunders in order to have success on varsity, he'd need to learn to play at more than one pace. The ensuing summer, Saunders and Bellamy worked diligently to thrive at multiple paces.

Last year, Saunders was the sixth man, playing behind All-County guards Christian Dean and Cameron Valentine. Both players challenged Saunders in practice offensively and defensively. Valentine helped Saunders progress as a point guard, while Dean's physicality and strength challenged Saunders to become a better defender and play through contact.

A starter as a senior, Saunders knew that prior anxiousness needed to fade. He gradually gained confidence with that larger responsibility, finishing with 26 points in a season-opening win over Wilde Lake. That set the tone for the remainder of the year.

"When I was coming off the bench and I was the sixth man, I didn't really believe in myself, especially in the big games," Saunders said. "This year, starting and knowing, that I can't be nervous or anxious in big games. Knowing that I have to help my team made me feel more confident out there to do my thing."

Saunders elevated his game to new heights in the season's biggest moments. The senior never wavered in the face of pressure, always controlling the game at his pace. He scored 28 points in the regular-season finale against Atholton, despite facing double teams for most of the fourth quarter.

"As a point guard you should always try to take control of the game," Saunders said. "That's what I was taught from a young age. The team should go as far as the point guard takes them. If I want the game to be slow, I've got to control the game."

That momentum continued into the playoffs with a career-high 35-point game against Centennial in the regional semifinals, 25 of which came in the second half. He scored a team-high 23 against River Hill in the regional final and 30 against Milford Mill in the Class 3A state quarterfinals, including shooting 18-of-19 at the free-throw line.

"Toward the end of the year, he started gaining even more confidence," Long Reach coach Andrew Lazzor said. "I think he just felt more that the whole team trusted him. He and RJ Barnes are two of the top players in the county. But, at some point toward the end of the year, Jayden, to me it felt like he [said], 'Climb on my back guys.' When we needed a bucket, we all knew that he could handle it. Everybody on the team trusted him and I think he felt that."

Rather than delegating, Saunders took over games down the stretch.

"He's very humble," Lazzor said. "So, even though everyone else had the belief in him, he may have differed a little bit and said I want to be fair. But, toward the end of the year, I think he accepted that role that his teammates were putting on him. They trusted him to carry us at times, handle the ball, handle the pressure, press and traps."

Saunders' growth throughout his career is a testament to his work ethic. It's an example Lazzor hopes his younger players can emulate moving forward.

"His work ethic all offseason to make that jump from seven points a game last year to almost 22 this year was huge," Lazzor said. "He added more skill, more finishes and worked on his shot, which all has been huge for him, developing as a player. It's a credit to him. My underclassmen are starting this already because they now see what's necessary to get to that level. The legacy that those seniors left, their work ethic in the offseason is contagious to our underclassmen."

Coach of the Year

Andrew Lazzor, Long Reach

Lazzor led the Lightning to a 23-3 record, a regional title and state semifinal berth. Lazzor's team won more than 20 games for a second straight season. The Lightning went 44-6 over the past two years, which is one of the top marks in the state.

"It means a lot because it's a reflection on our players and parents," he said. "The hard work that they've put in pretty much since COVID because I've been with the core of this group the last three years. We've had so many supportive parents, parents that are willing to help in the offseason coaching teams, organizing fundraisers and other things. It's a whole approach of everyone together and it's a reflection on their kids. They're great kids. I'm only coach of the year because these guys that put in the work all offseason."

He also credited the coaching staff for their assistance throughout the year.

"I think I have the best coaching staff in the county. We've been together for multiple years. Brandon, Aaron and CJ Thompson, those three guys do everything with us," Lazzor said. "It's Coach of the Year, but I like to think of it as a program of the year because of what we do as a whole. It's been a special run these last three years, we changed the culture a little bit, but also kept our core coaching staff together, which is huge."

All-county first team

RJ Barnes Jr, Long Reach, senior, forward

A three-year varsity starter, Barnes caps off his career with a second straight All-County first team selection. The veteran averaged 17 points per game, second on the team. He was the team leader in rebounds (7 rpg) and shot 58% from the field and 39.1% on 3-pointers.

Noah Brazil, Wilde Lake, junior, guard

Brazil led the Wildecats offense as a dynamic guard. A three-level scorer, he averaged a team-high 17 points per game, also averaging four rebounds and two assists per game.

Justin Christian, Hammond, senior, forward

A multi-year starter, Christian led the Golden Bears in several statistical categories. He was a force offensively and on the glass averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds a game. The veteran also averaged five assists and three blocks game.

Patrick Curtin, Glenelg Country, junior, guard

Curtin, an efficient scorer at all three levels, averaged a Howard County leading 33 points per game. He led the Dragons offense throughout a challenging MIAA A Conference field, including 36 points in a thrilling overtime win over Mount St. Joseph on Jan. 12. The veteran also averaged a team-leading five assists and six rebounds.

Josh Frazier, Centennial, junior, guard

An athletic guard, Frazier spearheaded the Eagles' offense. He averaged 19.5 points, finishing with at least 22 points in 11 games. The junior also was a strong rebounder from his guard position, averaging 7.1 per game and ending the season with four double-doubles. Active defensively, Frazier also averaged 2.5 steals per game.

Braden Sauritch, River Hill, senior, guard

Sauritch closed his career leading the Hawks to the Howard County championship. He was the team leader in points (16), assists (4.1) and steals (3.9) per game, playing with a relentless effort on both ends of the floor. On Feb. 7, Saurtich delivered a standout performance against Wilde Lake with a career-high 35 points.

Amir Shaheed, Atholton, senior, guard

Shaheed often stepped up in the clutch for the Raiders in the game's biggest moments. He averaged a team-high 16.8 points per game, scoring at least 20 points in six different games. The veteran scored a career-high 30 points against Long Reach on Feb. 14.

All-County second team

Jack Bonner, Marriotts Ridge, senior

Bonner averaged a team-leading 17.7 points per game with five 20-plus point games and two 30-plus point games.

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Phoenix Eggleston, Reservoir, junior

Eggleston was Reservoir's leading scorer (12 ppg) and rebounder (13 rpg), also a force at the rim, averaging two blocks per game.

Griffin Garner, Howard, junior

Garner headlined Howard's offense with a team-high 19.1 points per game, scoring at least 23 points six times and over 30 twice.

Aiden Igwebe, River Hill, senior

Igewbe was second on the team averaging 14.2 points and concluded the regular season with 19 points, 10 rebounds and five steals against Centennial.

Julian Kelly, Mt. Hebron, junior

Kelly was the Vikings floor general in his first varsity season, the team's leading scorer (16 ppg) and also Howard County's assist leader (6.5 apg).

Junior Nunez, Long Reach, senior

Nunez was the Lightning's third leading scorer (13.9 ppg), functioning as a three-level scorer. He scored a career-high 29 points against Reservoir on Jan. 3, also with 25 points against Poly two weeks prior.

Julian Sabbat, Chapelgate, senior

Sabbat was the Yellow Jackets second leading scorer (14.4 ppg) and their leading rebounder (6.8 rpg). The senior recorded a team-high six double-doubles and headlined the defense, averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.

Honorable mention

Kenny Akinlosotu, Mt. Hebron, junior

Deion Dent, Atholton, senior

Ty Jenkins, Glenelg, junior

OJ Ndu, River Hill, senior

Nick Smith, Oakland Mills, senior

Soma Unegbu, River Hill, senior

Restia Whitaker, Marriotts Ridge, junior

Final Standings

1. River Hill (20-4, 14-2, Howard County Champion, Class 3A South Region II finalist); 2. Long Reach (23-3, 14-2, 3A state semifinalist); 3. Atholton (14-9, 10-6); 4. Mt. Hebron (13-9, 10-6, 3A South Region I finalist); 5. Centennial (13-9, 9-7); 6. Wilde Lake (10-13, 9-8); 7. Howard (13-10, 8-8); 8. Hammond (11-12, 8-9); 9. Marriotts Ridge (12-12, 7-9); 10. Glenelg (7-14, 6-11); 11. Reservoir (2-17, 2-15); 12. Oakland Mills (2-18, 1-13).

MIAA A Conference Glenelg Country (13-16, 9-7); MIAA B Conference Chapelgate Christian (17-13, 7-8).

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