Notre Dame Prep at St Paul's Girls Basketball

Notre Dame Prep's Katie Willis, left, defends St. Paul's Kaci McNeave during the Blazers' 51-45 victory on Jan. 10. (photo by Scott Serio / January 10, 2014)

Ugly. That's how Notre Dame Prep basketball coach Katie Marks described her team's start to the season. The Blazers lost to Patterson Mill by 21 points, Severn by 16 and St. Timothy's by 9.

NDP's streak of five consecutive winning seasons — which included a 93-32 record and Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference championship in 2011 — seemed to be in serious jeopardy.

"We just had to re-evaluate," Marks said. "It was one of those things where we had to lower our expectations, but I didn't want to. It was like, 'What do we have to do here?' Then we got the answer against St. John's."

NDP posted a 31-20 victory over the Vikings on Dec. 20, in Frederick. That win gave the Blazers a dose of confidence and started them on the path to what is shaping up as another successful season.

They have gone 6-3 since their difficult start and are playing better than Marks could have anticipated.

NDP, led by junior shooting guard Marissa Varnado, senior point guard Claire Ford and sophomore forward Marisa DeLuca, also posted double-digit victories over C. Milton Wright, Holy Trinity and John Carroll.

"Everybody was kind of getting to know each other in our first couple of games," said Marks, an eighth-year coach. "It's gotten much more fun, intense. We have really been into games."

NDP is starting to resemble Marks' upper-echelon B Conference teams of the past few seasons.

Marks thinks her Blazers are a championship contender in a wide-open league. The league title game is Feb. 16 at Archbishop Spalding and the playoffs start six days earlier.

"The past five years, whoever won the league had five really good players," the coach said. "This year, it seems like every team has two or three good players, but no one from top to bottom looks as strong as I have seen. That makes it exciting. I think it's fair game for a lot of teams."

Marks doesn't have a go-to player. Any of the starters, Ford, Varnado, DeLuca, senior guard/forward Morgan Bracken and senior forward Blake Smith, can lead NDP in scoring in any game.

Last season, the team relied primarily on two players who have graduated, Sydney Tommins and Angela Healy, to lead the offense. "Last year, we had our stars and role players," Marks said. "We are much more balanced."

That means the Blazers are tougher to defend.

"We can't key on one or two great players," St. Paul's coach Pat Conrad said. "We have to guard everybody because everybody can hurt you. NDP usually had a couple of stars. Now, it's more on an even keel, talent-wise. The talent across the board is elevated for them."

Varnado leads the team in scoring (12.3 points per game) and steals (3.0 spg).

Her top performance (19 points, 6 rebounds) came in a 65-50 victory over C. Milton Wright in late December.

"She has really come into her own as a scorer and leader," Marks said. "She really can hit some shots."

So can forward Ford and DuLuca when Marks needs them to score. Both players are averaging 10 points a game.

The 5-foot-11 DeLuca leads the team in rebounding (9.8) and grabbed a season-high 17 against Severn. "She is our true post presence, and someone we have to run stuff through," Marks said.

And 5-foot-7 senior guard Katie Willis might be the coach's most reliable player. She comes off the bench along with senior forward Margaret Lane and junior guard Brooke Holechek.

"Willis is our defensive stopper," Marks said. "We played John Carroll (48-38 victory) and she was everywhere. She can really rebound the ball for a guard. She has like magnets in her hand."

Chemistry was a real issue early in the season, but it is not a problem now.

"We just needed to work together better," Ford said. "We have a lot of new people. We weren't used to each other. Last year, we had two really good leaders. We had to be leaders this year, so we have stepped up."