After losing two of its first three games of the season by a combined total of 47 points, it looked as though the Atholton girls basketball team had picked up right where it left off last winter.
The Raiders finished the 2012-13 regular season losing four of their final five games, and though coach Julia Reynold's team virtually returned its entire roster, a repeat of an 8-11 record in Howard County play didn't appear to be out of the question for fans on Freetown Road.
"Last year we were really young, and we started three sophomores on varsity," said Reynold. "That season, a lot of it was just trying to get everyone to work on playing in certain situations. Everyone was trying to get on the same page."
Atholton has found that winning formula.
After its double-digit loss to Howard on Dec. 12, the Raiders went on a tear through the county, winning seven consecutive league games before dropping a three-point overtime thriller to Reservoir.
Entering this week at 10-5 in county play, 12-5 overall, the Raiders have established themselves as a contender.
"Our expectations were definitely to show people that we were serious this year, to get back at the people who thought we weren't going to do anything, and to prove them wrong," said junior guard Chelsea Mitchell. "Our success isn't much of a surprise to me."
A big part of Atholton's turnaround this season has been, in part, because of the growth the entire roster has experienced as a unit. Still relatively green by most standards throughout the county, a core group of juniors in Mitchell, forward Kalere Caldwell, and guards Sage Mayhew and Amanda Petersen, prove that a team that works together, wins together.
Reynold entered this winter in her second full season at the helm of the Atholton varsity program, having coached most of her roster since her days on the JV bench.
The coach is notorious for fielding different line-up combinations, as well as regular rotations to find the right group of five players. In doing so, the team has been getting regular contributions from just about every player on the roster, no matter how much varsity experience they may have.
Nine different players have recorded double-digit outings this season. Mitchell, who leads her team in scoring, averages 11.6 points per game in county play. The junior has scored less than 10 points just twice this season.
Rebound specialists Mayhew and Caldwell provide the support in the paint, while players like senior Becca Weinberg have flourished from the field.
After recording 33 total points last season, Weinberg has more than doubled that this winter with 73. Her 17 points against River Hill on Jan. 6 helped the Raiders defeat their cross-town rivals for the first time in over a year.
"I'm very proud of them. It gives me great pride that in each game, someone new steps up or plays that defining rol,." Reynold said. "They take ownership with everything, and everyone is a part of it."
Save for Weinberg's resurgence from behind the arc, and for Reynold's adjusted fast-paced offense to fit her team's strengths, not much has changed from last season in terms of the team's overall makeup and individual player output.
Most of the returning players — including juniors Caldwell (7.8 points per game) and Mayhew (7.1) — average similar numbers in county play from last year.
It could be the small differences in offensive and defensive team production, which play into a list of factors explaining Atholton's rise. On average, the Raiders score two more points per game in county play, while allowing three less than last winter's squad.
Weinberg says the key to success this winter comes down to a combination of things set in motion from Reynold herself.
"This year, we are a lot more in shape, and that means we can push the ball a lot faster and catch the other teams off guard. With all the different players she's playing, we all have different strengths. Coach realizes that, and sees who works well together," she said. "When we came in this season, we all knew we were going to be pretty good because of the freshmen that made it, and all of us being together another year."
Mitchell said that Reynold "stepped up as a coach and did a lot to improve," adding that her style of teaching takes advantage of her team's abilities.
Already well-equipped with a positive team chemistry in the locker room, the roster added freshmen guards Francesca Venegas and Ryan Jones to the mix — both of whom have made a significant impact to the team in their short time on varsity.
In a league ripe with nearly six teams vying for a county championship, Atholton is in the thick of the race. The Raiders are on their way to the biggest turnaround from last season for any county team.
For now, though, Mitchell is focusing on the task at hand.
"We're avoiding the record. It doesn't matter," said Mitchell, bluntly. "It's all about how you play."