By the time Megan Sterling was an eighth-grader, she knew she was going to play basketball for River Hill. So that year, when the Hawks reached the state final four, she soaked everything in while watching from the stands at RAC Arena on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus.
"They got to states and lost that year (2009), but I went to all of the games that were at UMBC," Sterling said. "I started practicing with some of the members from that team in eighth grade and I became friends with the girls who would be the leaders on the team."
She didn't know it then, but just a a short time later she would be playing on that same floor after helping River Hill reach back-to-back state championship games.
She also didn't know that she would become the driving force behind River Hill's success this season, leading the county's public school players with an average of 14.6 points per game to go along with 4.7 steals and 3.1 assists. Sterling also led the county with 45 three-pointers.
For her efforts in leading the Hawks to the county championship, Class 3A East regional crown and an appearance in the 3A state title game, Sterling has been selected the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times Player of the Year.
"I didn't think that would be possible when I was a little skin-and-bones eighth-grader," said Sterling, a third-year captain.
Sterling made the team her freshman year but played sparingly. Since then, however, she has been a leader on and off the court. She was joined by three other freshmen on that 2009-10 squad but, by the following winter, she was the only one still on the team.
"Because our program is demanding, it can be a little much for freshmen," River Hill coach Teresa Waters said. "Meg was the only one who continued to play and exceeded the high standards that were set."
Sterling will be the first to tell you just how much hard work she's given to the program.
"I understand because it was really tough with lots of long practices and it's a huge time commitment," she said. "I've been playing basketball since I can remember so I couldn't imagine just giving it up. If I had, I wouldn't have been able to make it to states twice."
"Meg is a player that has been first in every sprint, every year," Waters said. "She's soft-spoken but there is a lot of substance in her words. Her teammates give her respect for her consistent demeanor and hard work."
The 5-foot-7 shooting guard basically lived in the gym all summer preparing for her final season. Each day she ran, lifted weights and put up countless jumpers — all before even going to practice with the Maryland Sting on the AAU circuit.
Fueled by the memory of the last game of her junior season, Sterling knew she had to get better. River Hill advanced to the 3A state title game a year ago before falling to Aberdeen.
But before she could think about returning to UMBC a final time, there were other goals that the Hawks set. After seeing Glenelg earn the past two county titles, Sterling and her teammates wanted to reclaim the crown they had last won in 2009-10.
"(Coach Waters) kept reminding us that our program had so many county titles and we wanted that back," Sterling said. "I wanted to make sure that as a team, by my senior year, we'd get the county title back."
River Hill won their first nine league games by an average of 30 points before running into Reservoir, which handed the Hawks their most lopsided loss of the season with a 49-24 decision.
In the very next game, with the Hawks trailing Glenelg by three in the closing seconds, Sterling made a season-changing play.
"I wasn't having the best game, and I don't know how it happened, but somehow with seconds left Vicki (Rowe) was able to get the steal and threw the ball to me," Sterling explained. "Somehow the shot went in and we ended up winning in overtime."
After that, River Hill ran the table through the rest of the county schedule and finished with an 18-1 mark. Sterling averaged 10.3 points in three 3A East playoff games to help the Hawks earn their second straight regional title.
Then the Hawks downed Friendly, 52-43, in the state semifinals to set up a rematch with Aberdeen.
Despite being ahead by as many as 10 in the second half, the defending champion Eagles were able to pick up a come-from-behind victory. With tears running down her face, Sterling could only watch as the Eagles celebrated having thwarted the Hawks' title hopes.
"After the game I was upset because we worked so hard to get there," Sterling said. "We had the lead but they were a great team. They were so athletic and they caught back up. We let it slip away. It was upsetting for it to end like that."
But being the team leader that she is, Sterling was able to put the disappointment in perspective.
"I am very proud that we got back to the state championship," she said. "The team worked so hard over the summer, and the entire season, to silence everyone's doubts that we couldn't make it back."
Sterling has decided to scale back on basketball and focus on her academics. In the fall, she will attend Towson University to major in bioinformatics.
"I love basketball so much and I may end up playing club or intramurals," Sterling said. "But I want to get started with school before I think about any of that."
Named to the all-county first team are:
Sydney Biniak, Howard. On a team that started four guards, Biniak was crucial to the Lions' success this season. Standing six feet tall, Biniak was just shy of a double-double on the season with averages of 9.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest. The junior post finished as the county's leader in rebounding.
"Sydney is a very talented athlete that brings unique skills for a six-footer to the basketball court," coach Scott Robinson said. "She has great hands, is an excellent passer and can handle the ball like a point guard."
Constantly facing double-teams, Biniak showed off her ability to pass the ball. She stepped to the high post and burnt opposing teams with finding the open teammate on a backdoor cut.
"She has good range on her shot which extends to the 3-point area," Robinson said. "Sydney is an excellent rebounder and can elevate her jump shot in traffic."
Olivia Callan, Long Reach. Callan had a major role in helping the Lightning turn their program around. With her leadership and scoring ability, Long Reach has enjoyed success over the last two seasons (18 county wins) that was unseen for most of the past decade.
"Olivia is probably one of the best players to have put on a Long Reach uniform in quite some time," coach Kelli Cofield said. "She remained in the top-five in scoring all season. She led us statistically, emotionally, on-and-off the court."
During a midseason slide, the senior captain called a players-only meeting to make sure the team got back on the same page. In Long Reach's next game, she had 18 points and six assists to help the team snap a four-game skid.
"Having coached her for four years, she has given me a steady voice on the court," Cofield said. "She often knows what I expect before I say it and did a great job relaying it to the other players."
Callan finished with averages of 11.3 points and 2.3 assists per game. She is undecided on where she will attend college next season but basketball is definitely in her plans.
Nia Crump, Mt. Hebron. A second-year varsity starter, Crump led the well-balanced Vikings in scoring (198 points) and rebounding (210 boards).
She was assigned to guard the opposing team's top post player and accepted the challenge with enthusiasm despite checking in at 5-foot-9.
"Nia was our most physical presence on the inside," coach Tony Bell said. "She came to practice everyday like it was a job. She's very coachable and unselfish. She's the definition of a true team player."
Crump isn't flashy but there aren't many out there who work as hard as she does on the court. On any given night, she can score 20 points (season-high 23 points against C. Milton Wright) or can grab 15 rebounds, depending on what the team needs.
Casey Johnson, Chapelgate. Johnson might be the county's best-kept secret. Playing for the Yellowjackets in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland C Conference, there wasn't much fanfare surrounding the sophomore.
But the sophomore stat-filler was one of the top performers in her conference and could arguably start on any of the top teams in the A Conference. Playing every position on the floor, she is as versatile as they come.
Johnson averaged 15.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season — including a 38-point, 14-rebound performance in a win over Oldfields. In just two seasons, Johnson has scored 716 points.
"Casey means a lot to the team as a player and person," said Yellowjackets coach Kortnie Smith. "As a player she is very unselfish even though she leads the team in points per game. This year she stepped up to be more of a leader and constantly encouraged her teammates. There were a lot of games this year that we would not have won if not for her."
Zelor Massaquoi, Reservoir. Massaquoi, a junior, is arguably the best all-around player in the county. An undersized post at 5-foot-5, she was the only player to average a double-double each night she stepped on the court. Her 12.8 points per game average was good enough for second in the county among active players and she was her team's top rebounder with 10.2 boards per contest.
A Player of the Year candidate, Massaquoi was the heart and soul of the Gators. When the team needed a bucket or had to clamp down on defense to make a stop, Massaquoi was the one to get it done.
"She brought a fire and passion to the game that is a little less common in girls basketball," Reservoir coach Kyle Sullivan said.
Massaquoi willed her team to a pivotal comeback win over Glenelg in the Hall of Fame game with a career-high 29-point and 11-rebound effort.
"She was willing to sacrifice scoring opportunities to get her teammates involved, ultimately leading to her being the team leader in not only points and rebounds but also assists," Sullivan said. "She accepted challenges both offensively and defensively and loved the opportunity to silence critics."
Anna Mitchell, Centennial. There are many words that could be used to describe Mitchell's game, but the best would probably be consistency.
The sophomore scored in double-digits in 16 of her team's 23 games despite attempting just two 3-pointers all season. But it isn't just her ability to get to the rim at will that she prides herself on — her biggest strength is rebounding.
Mitchell finished fourth in the county with 9.7 boards per game and enjoyed each one that she brought down.
"Anna is a dynamic player who is a game-changer on both sides of the ball whenever she is on the court," Eagles coach Bobby Macheel said. "She is already a great rebounder, and I can't wait to see her develop over the next two years as she continued to polish her offensive and defensive fundamentals."
Traonna Thomas, Oakland Mills. Simply put, Thomas could fill up a stat sheet in a hurry. After missing all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, it took a few games to get her legs under her. But by season's end, the Player of the Year candidate proved why she is one of the league's top performers.
The senior guard went on a tear late in the campaign and that carried over into the postseason. She averaged 21.3 points in three Class 2A South Region playoff games — including 20 in the first half against defending-champion Calvert — and helped lead the Scorpions to the regional semifinals.
"Traonna's quiet presence goes unnoticed when she steps on the court but her actions speak loud enough," coach Seth Willingham said. "She is a player and teammate that will be impossible to replace."
Not only a terrific scorer, Thomas led Oakland Mills in points (308), rebounds (229), three-pointers (30) and steals (121). Thomas will play at Chesapeake College in the fall.