When the Chapelgate girls basketball team walks into opposing gyms around the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland C Conference, league coaches know that the game will be more difficult than in years past.
The Yellowjackets may not be a traditional powerhouse, but, with second-year coach Kortnie Smith and sophomore forward Casey Johnson leading the way, things are beginning to change.
"The program is definitely progressing," Smith said. "I don't know that they're used to winning but they don't walk around with a cocky attitude at all. I try to set that culture here. It's great that you're winning but we still have work to do."
Last winter in Smith's first season, Chapelgate finished 9-15 overall and 6-9 in the C Conference. One year later the team has showed a marked improvement, boasting a 12-3 record while leading the X Division of the C Conference with a 7-1 mark through Jan. 15.
"They've evolved as players," Smith said. "They've matured and understand the game a little bit better. They understand what needs to be done on the court."
Johnson has definitely been getting things done on the court. Listed at 5-foot-11, Johnson has scored 20 or more points in five games — including a career-high 38 against Oldfields on Dec. 12.
Her 18 points per game average is tops on the team, improving on her standout freshman season where she averaged 12 points per contest and was named an IAAM C Conference All-Star.
"I just like being out there on the court, playing basketball," said Johnson, who plays for the Baltimore's Charm AAU team. "It's great, especially if you have teammates that want to be out there just as much."
Johnson's production has caught the attention of coaches around the league. Mike Buchanan of St. Timothy's, which is in first place in the Y Division, realized Johnson's talent in middle school.
"I remember Casey from several years back, doing shooting sessions with her Grizzlies AAU team. She is strong inside, has good post footwork and is an excellent free throw shooter," Buchanan said. "I could see her potential then as a seventh and eighth grader.
"I actually recruited her, trying to get her here at St. Tim's, but it just didn't work out. I'm happy she's having success at Chapelgate, but also hoping she doesn't put up too many points when we play them on Jan. 23."
Smith said that she doesn't have to run individual plays for Johnson because the sophomore just has a knack for scoring the basketball.
"This year, Casey had really stepped up," Smith said. "She's chosen to play any position. I don't run a whole lot of plays just for her; she gets a lot of points off of rebounds and steals. She does the extra work, which is great to see in a sophomore.
"She wants to be better. That's always wonderful when you have a player that wants to learn and doesn't just think 'I'm already good enough.' "
While Johnson has become the team's most potent scorer, the Yellowjackets have a balanced starting lineup.
Senior point guard Jen Yahiro runs the show, getting her teammates involved in the offense. Smith calls junior Christina VanWingerden the team's "hustle player" whose contribution is felt beyond the stat book. Sophomore Camile Keyes is the second leading scorer, while freshman post Jayla Powers has added size and has a penchant for blocking shots.
Chapelgate is currently riding a five-game winning streak with six games left in the regular season.
"We bring the hard work ourselves. We know what we have to do to win," Johnson said. "Everyone wants to win. We like the feeling of winning and its something that we want to keep feeling."
With a one-game lead over division-rival Catholic — which handed Chapelgate its only conference loss thus far — the Yellowjackets are in unfamiliar territory. But the team, which gets another shot at the Cubs in the regular season finale, is excited about its position.
"I don't think we're used to it because we've never had a record as good as this before," Yahiro said about leading the division this late into the season. "It's exciting and we're excited for that game because we have definitely gotten better since we've played them the first time."
While Smith is enjoying the team's success, she isn't ready to declare Chapelgate a stronghold in the conference just yet.
"If we can keep progressing, sky's the limit. You never know what can happen if we keep working hard and are willing to learn," she said. "They are willing to work and be better because they are tired of losing. If you can build that type of program and keep bringing those people in, five years down the line it can be something great. Chapelgate could be there."