When Zelor Massaquoi first set foot on the court as a freshman looking to cut her teeth with the Reservoir varsity squad, coaches weren't sure what to expect.
Her body type and 5-foot-7 frame didn't exactly fit the traditional basketball mold for any one position, not to mention that her maturity on the court needed some work.
Simply put: Massaquoi was a project, and nobody knew that more than the young woman herself. The raw talent was clearly there, but that uncertainty when it came to her place on the team created a chip on her shoulder that grew every time she felt disrespected.
"I was trying to prove to everyone else that I was better than they were, without actually working on it," she said. "I wasn't playing for my team. I was doing it for myself."
A lot of work, dedication and coaching went into shaping Massaquoi into who she is today. This season, all that effort finally paid of.
After scoring her 1,000th career point, the Grand Canyon University recruit can add one more distinction to her record before her high school career is up: Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Player of the Year.
"It's an honor for me, and it's my way of saying 'thank you' to those people who helped me along the way," she said.
After playing sparingly off the bench in her first year, the double-double machine's tenure truly began in a playoff game against Atholton – her first taste of postseason action. An injury provided the opportunity, and Massaquoi didn't waste it, notching 22 points and 17 rebounds for the Gators.
From there, coach Kyle Sullivan said she only continued to work on her game, all the while becoming the best teammate she could be.
"She was able to think of the big picture," said Sullivan, who joined the Reservoir staff in Massaquoi's freshman year. "She was able to understand what we were trying to do, and what it takes to do that."
Having been overlooked for first-team all-county honors as a sophomore, a true test of character came the next season, when the coaches failed to select her as the county's Player of the Year – a distinction she felt she earned.
The omission lit a fire inside her, and by the time her senior year came to a close, there was no doubting her position as the most elite player in Howard County.
"I went back in the gym, and this time around, I hit it with this fury," said Massaquoi, recalling those long summer days filled with wind sprints and three-hour training sessions. "I just know that, no matter what, I gave it every ounce that I had."
The Gators had high hopes of competing for both county and state titles this season. Although they ultimately fell short, Massaquoi's service on the court was hard to ignore. Averaging a county-best 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, Massaquoi's tenacious presence on the court was a nightmare for opposing coaches game after game.
The best part, according to Sullivan, was watching that maturation produce results. No longer purely an inside player, Massaquoi's ball handling skills allowed her to create opportunities that, in her freshman year, were never there.
Her midrange jumper became a staple part of her game, which forced defenders to play up in the zone and, for the most part, out of position. She also took on the role of point guard in a few high-pressure situations.
Her performance on the court continued to improve throughout high school, as did her athleticism and strength. Still, it was her leadership amongst her peers that Sullivan said could be one of her more admirable qualities.
"She got learning experience from being a leader and being accountable," said Sullivan, who added that the small forward relished that opportunity.
That relationship with her teammates grew into something special, and Massaquoi knows she wouldn't have gone far without them.
Citing fellow senior teammates Blair Bonner, Keri Rager and Tara Thompson, Massaquoi said she shares the glory with those who helped her along the way.
"I want to be remembered as one of the best basketball players to ever step onto any Howard County court, but I want people to be aware that I didn't accomplish that on my own," she said. "They need to remember that the reason I made it this far was because of my work ethic, the work ethic of my teammates and coaches, and the love I received from my basketball family."
In the fall, Massaquoi will travel across the country to Arizona, where she'll start a new legacy on the collegiate level. The Western Athletic Conference is a step up from Howard County, but her ambition will remain the same.
"I'm just excited to play basketball every day," she said. "I will represent Howard County, and make every person who helped me proud."
Named to the first-team all-county squad are:
Chelsea Mitchell, Atholton. A threat on both sides of the ball, Mitchell was one of this year's smoothest players on the court. Her ability to get a steal, make a quick pass in transition or take it to the rim herself set her apart from not only her own teammates, but many opposing players in the county.
After trailing by double-digits for the majority of the 3A East regional championship game against Poly, Mitchell's inspired play was crucial as the Raiders started their comeback. Though they went on to lose by five points in double-overtime, that performance could be a sign of things to come next season.
"Chelsea is a fantastic basketball player," said coach Julia Reynold. "Her speed, ball handling and defensive intensity can really change the style and pace of a game."
The junior led the county with 3.6 steals, and her team with 11.8 points per game. She added 5.7 rebounds as well, making her one of the most diverse players on the court in any given game.
Reynold said Mitchell's work to develop all aspects of her game made her an asset to the team this season, and that her drive and dedication fueled her team-first style of play.
"I am thrilled that I have the opportunity to be her coach for another year," added Reynold.
Jenna Collins, River Hill. Like Massaquoi, River Hill's Collins also surpassed the 1,000-point milestone this season. Though her team lost a great deal of senior leadership from last year's roster, Collins was one of the key components to the success the Hawks had on the court.
She averaged 16.6 points, 10.5 boards and 3.3 steals per game this winter, leading her team in all three categories.
River Hill coach Teresa Waters, who has seen the growth of Collins over her four-year career, said it's the senior's work ethic that ultimately set her apart from her peers.
"Jenna is a player that firmly believes you leave it all out there on the court whether it be at practice or in games," she said. "She brought the mental and physical intensity every day."
Though Collins was tough to defend in the post, her biggest asset was the ability to act as an extra coach on the floor. The Hawks played a number of underclassmen throughout the season, most notably at point guard with sophomore Jessie Hopkins. Collins' knack for helping her younger teammates learn the game made her extremely valuable.
A two-sport athlete, Collins will join her sister, Julia (a second-team selection this winter), on the Naval Academy's lacrosse team next season.
Karigan Awkward, Oakland Mills. Awkward averaged 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds this year for the Scorpions – the only team with a losing record to produce a first-team all-county selection.
One of the county's purest scorers, Awkward's ability to drive to the hoop over some of the leagues most talented opponents showed just how dynamic she could be.
Still, for Awkward, it wasn't always easy. This season, coach Christina Hewitt was the fourth person at the helm of the Scorpions program in as many years.
That turnover seemed to only drive Awkward, who became her team's go-to scorer in pressure situations.
Highlighted by 31 and 26-point performances against River Hill and Reservoir, respectively, Awkward was never shy when it came to quality competition.
This is the second time Awkward has been honored with a first-team all-county selection.
Anna Mitchell, Centennial. Mitchell makes her second first-team all-county appearance of the year, having been named to the soccer list in the fall as well.
She averaged 12.2 points and 9.6 rebounds, but the junior's biggest contribution to Centennial this season was her versatility, according to coach Bobby Macheel.
Mitchell was "willing to fill whatever role was needed on that day, whether it be scorer or distributor, as long as the team won," he added.
As a team, the Eagles had a lot to celebrate this year. Besides being the first squad to take down eventual county champion Howard, Macheel's girls also recorded quality wins against Mt. Hebron and Reservoir.
As an individual, Mitchell's season was highlighted by a 25-point performance against Marriotts Ridge, where she also recorded 13 rebounds, six assists, seven steals and three blocks.
Nia Crump, Mt. Hebron. A two-time first-team all-county pick, Crump was a constant force in the paint for a surprising Mt. Hebron team that rode a 12-game win streak before falling to Baltimore City College in the playoffs.
Crump – also a first-team all-county soccer selection in the fall – averaged 8.3 points and 2.1 steals per game, but it was her defense that ultimately stood out.
Matched up against Massaquoi in a crucial county game late in the regular season, Crump scored 19 points while holding the Player of the Year to just five en route to the Vikings' victory.
"Nia is the type of player who is always willing to do the hard work," Mt. Hebron coach Tony Bell said. "She leads by example, has an intense work effort and provided us with a physical presence on the court this season. She is a pleasure to coach."
Sydney Biniak, Howard. A center ranking high on her team in both points and rebounds is to be expected, but when that same player also leads her team in assists, it's clear she is a special talent. That was the case for Howard's Sydney Biniak this season. The senior three-sport athlete, who was also named Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Player of the Year in volleyball last season, helped her Lions to their first girls basketball county championship in the modern era.
It was because of her ability to adjust, coach Scott Robinson said, that gave her team that extra advantage.
"Her assists and ability to handle and pass the ball led to points for her teammates," the veteran coach said. "She is a tremendous passer."
Biniak averaged 9.7 points per game this season, which was good for second among all centers in Howard County.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun