Shortly after the season began, Calvert Hall basketball coach John Bauersfeld crammed his players into a classroom and let them have their say.
The Cardinals had dominated their summer league, dedicated themselves to a rigorous workout program in the fall and filled the preseason with grind-it-out practices that brought healthy competition.
But that collective heart-to-heart in mid-December — each player having his say — might have as much to do with the Cardinals' breakthrough season as anything else.
"I talked about playing together as a team and having fun on the court," senior co-captain Chris Wallace said. "Last year, it wasn't really fun and we weren't as much a team. I think this year we enjoy each other more, we get along. That's very important. If you don't have that as a team, you're not going to be successful."
With a roster dominated by juniors coming off last season's 13-16 mark, Calvert Hall was thought by many still to be a year away from being a major factor in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference and Baltimore Catholic League. But, game after game, the Cardinals have proved otherwise.
Deep, committed and standing up to all challengers, Calvert Hall finished its regular season with a 26-4 mark. Coming off Sunday's 69-62 win over St. Frances, their first against the Panthers after eight straight losses, the Cardinals are ranked No. 3 in the metro area after beginning the season at No. 15 in The Baltimore Sun's preseason poll. They earned the second seed in the MIAA playoffs and a first-round bye, and are set to host St. Frances again in Thursday's semifinal at 7 p.m., weather permitting.
With an 11-3 record in the BCL, Calvert Hall was declared a regular-season co-champion with Mount St. Joseph and is the top seed in the tournament (set to begin Feb. 21 at UMBC) after winning a coin flip.
"I think we've gained confidence in one another," fellow senior co-captain Sean Mayberry said. "Coach John has always emphasized being a team and not having one player be the standout. So I think throughout the season, we've had opportunities where different players have stepped up in each game and we've really defined ourselves as a team."
The Cardinals have used up to 10 players in a game and Bauersfeld said it isn't rare for the second-team players to best the starters in those intense practice scrimmages. The added depth — the Cardinals regularly used just seven players last season — has enabled them to push the tempo and pressure on defense without losing their breath.
Junior Nico Clareth, the leading scorer on the junior varsity last year, wasn't completely comfortable with his role before the team meeting in December, so that's what he asked when it was his turn to speak.
"They told me to score and play hard defense, so that's what I try to do every night," he said. "If I'm not scoring, I'll play hard defense and dish it to teammates."
Clareth and do-everything junior guard Drew Edwards average a team-high 14 points per game. Junior forward Evan Phoenix, the team's most improved player, averages 10 points and eight rebounds while capably handling the opposing teams' top inside threats.
Mayberry, a guard, averages eight points, and Wallace, a forward, brings seven points, seven rebounds and strong defense every game. Junior guards Reggie Rouse (team-high five assists per game) and TJ Duckett are other key contributors.
"The depth has been what's really helped us a lot," Bauersfeld said. "We've had days where some guys were injured and others weren't having very good games, and there's always been other people who have stepped up and played really well."
Edwards scored 35 points to help the Cardinals beat host and previously unbeaten Benedictine on the road in front of a hostile crowd, in the semifinals of the Capital City Classic during Christmas break. The next day, Clareth scored 23 to beat Haverford (Pa.) in the title game. The win gave the 14-1 Cardinals one more victory than they had all last season.
On Jan. 18, it was Mayberry's turn to be the hero. He hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds and scored 14 points in a 61-60 win over Riverdale Baptist, which was the Washington, D.C., area's top team.
After falling to Mount St. Joseph in overtime in December, the Cardinals avenged the loss Jan. 26 with a 69-66 road win. Rouse hit a pivotal 3-pointer late and then sealed the win with two free throws in the closing seconds to hand the Gaels their first loss in their new gym after 10 straight wins.
Each big win has increased the Cardinals' confidence.
"They have a lot of talent," Mount St. Joseph coach Pat Clatchey said. "I think last year they were probably frustrated and disappointed with their season, and collectively they came in determined not to allow that to happen again. I think some guys have improved, some guys have accepted their roles and a guy like Nico Clareth brings a lot of athleticism, toughness and a swagger to the court."
It's already added up to a special season, but the Cardinals believe they are far from finished.
"Confidence is key in everything." Edwards said. "We have a little bit of momentum and I think we have a little bit of an advantage on everybody right now because we're playing so well together. We're just rolling."
Darius Ables is a senior forward who doesn't receive a lot of playing time in his second varsity season. But he pushes everybody in practice and describes himself as "the big brother" on the team. His selfless effort has rubbed off.
"Last year, we wanted to do well, but we didn't show what we could do," he said. "I think what changed the most is how we've treated each other. If somebody needs something, somebody is there. This year, I feel we can call on each other for anything. On the basketball court, it's the same."