By Brent Kennedy, email@example.com
12:20 PM EST, January 20, 2014
For weeks the frustration had been building. Missed shots, lack of effort on the defensive end and some tough luck in late-game situations had Glenelg spiraling. For a team with preseason hopes of contending for a Howard County championship, a 2-4 start was more than a little disheartening.
Then, in the first game back from winter break, a 71-51 loss to River Hill on Jan. 4, things reached a boiling point.
"All the losses were tough, but that one we definitely took personally. We weren't playing anywhere near our potential," said junior Dom Napolitano, who was held under 10 points for only the second time all season. "I think we all realized that it was time to dig down deep.
"You reach a point where you get tired of losing and for whatever reason I think that it took that (River Hill) game to get us going."
In the aftermath of that 20-point loss, the Gladiators aren't just competing again — they're winning.
Three straight victories, two coming over teams in the top half of the standings, have Glenelg's overall record back at .500 (7-7). And, although it's a small sample size, coach Jansen McMillan says there's a feeling a corner has been turned.
"The truth is, I feel like the guys have finally come into their own as a family," McMillan said. "We had our rough stretch of adversity and we had to come together to come out of it and get our confidence back. The kids have always felt that they were not the team that their record was."
Returning four starters from a team that finished one game under .500 in county play last season, expectations were high for the Gladiators. In hindsight, maybe too high, too soon.
"I think maybe when the shots weren't falling early in the year guys started pressing a little, thinking that it was on them to make things happen," McMillan said. "I think naturally when there's a desire to be the best possible team you can be, there's some pressure that goes along with that when things aren't going well."
During a four-game losing skid in December, the team lost by double digits three times. Two losses came against teams currently in the bottom half of the county standings.
A team that prides itself on defense, Glenelg's average of 68 points against a game during that stretch was a killer. Compounding matters was the fact that Glenelg, which has the potential to be one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the area, was shooting less than 30 percent from beyond the arc.
"As a shooter, you realize there are times when you are cold and there are times when you feel like you can't miss," said junior point guard Nick Oates. "We just unfortunately had a really long cold stretch, where everyone was missing at the same time."
The good news for the Gladiators is that the shots did start falling. Strong long-range efforts against Wilde Lake and McDonough showed signs of progress.
As for the big changes, though, those didn't come until the soul-searching that followed the loss to River Hill.
"I could see it in their eyes, they were embarrassed a little that they had left such a bad impression of themselves," McMillan said. "The focus and concentration I've seen from them since that game has been so much better."
Defeating Centennial, 49-47, on Jan. 8 was a big step, according to a few of the players. It was not only the first time the team had won a game decided by single digits this winter, but it was on the road against an Eagles squad that had won four in a row.
"Against Centennial, we felt like we had nothing to lose. They were the higher-rated team and had beaten a lot of the teams we had lost to," said Napolitano, who scored 14 points in the win. "But I think we all also realized it was our chance to open people's eyes a little."
The Gladiators kept things rolling two days later, getting a final second free throw from Bryce Helensky to defeat Long Reach, 59-58. Then on Jan. 13, in the final game before the midseason break for exams, Glenelg made it three wins in a row with a 15-point victory over Mt. Hebron (6-5, 8-6).
In that game, Glenelg hit a season-high 12 3-pointers en route to scoring the most points the Vikings have allowed this season.
"We definitely feed off one another. Once someone starts making shots, everyone feels like they can make them," said Oates, who hit three 3-pointers against Mt. Hebron on his way to a team-high 19 points.
A little over halfway through the season, the Gladiators' top four scorers are all juniors. Napolitano is leading the way with an average of 13.5 points, followed by Daine Van de Wall (10.8), Oates (10.4) and Matt Hammert (8.9).
Hammert is the team's top 3-point shooter, having made 37 from long range this season.
Big picture, the core group of underclassmen is a viable explanation for the early-season growing pains and also bodes well for the future. For now, though, McMillan says he's imploring his guys to simply focus on the present.
"Our motto has been, 'Last year is last year, 2014 is a new season.' As a group, we can only affect change on what we have in front of us," McMillan said. "The work we've put in to win these last three games is what we're holding on to. We can't change what's already happened, all we can do is use it to continue making ourselves better going forward."