Garrison Forest girls basketball finding C Conference a good fit

Had they been elections, Garrison Forest's two losses to start the season would be considered landslides.

The youthful Grizzlies' lost by more than 30 points to Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference opponents Bryn Mawr and Mount De Sales.

Those games are indications of why the Grizzlies moved down to the C Conference after going 4-9 in the B Conference and 6-15 overall last year.

Yet playing Bryn Mawr and Mount De Sales helped first-year coach Nick Burns' club immensely.

"I think the kids learned rather quickly there is intense competition out there," said Burns, who spent the last six years as a varsity assistant at the Owings Mills school. "I think those games gave us a reality check: We have to play at a high level."

The players received the message, going 5-2 over their next six games, including four wins in a row over Key School, Gerstell Academy, Cristo Rey and Beth Tfiloh.

Burns said the Grizzlies, who start four underclassmen and a junior, needed a few games to come together.

Now that they have done just that, they could be on the way to a stellar season.

"I have never coached a varsity team that jelled so quickly," Burns explained. "I think we are realizing each other's strengths. I think at the beginning of the year, we had very little experience. We only had three returning players. We didn't have any idea who could score from where a month ago."

Charmaine Oden is the lone senior on the roster.

The team's starting lineup includes junior center Luci Shepherd, sophomore point guard Allie Gibbons, freshman forward Mack Ferguson, sophomore small forward Aliyah Smith and sophomore shooting guard Jillian Newton.

Burns is infatuated with what lies ahead for the Grizzlies.

"We are as much about the future as we are the present," he said. "That's what is so exciting. I have never coached a high school team anywhere (in 25 years) that's been this young. It's not only good that we are getting a few wins now, but I predict good things for the future as well."

Three returning players — Gibbons, Shepherd and Smith — have been leading the team.

Shepherd is averaging 10 rebounds and eights points per game.

"It seems like in every game, she is getting a double-double," Burns said. "She has stepped up her play tremendously. As she has become more confident and comfortable, the team has become more confident and comfortable."

Shepherd and Smith form a productive one-two inside tandem. Smith is averaging nine points and nine rebounds per outing.

Smith totaled 12 points and 11 rebounds in the 34-26 victory over host Beth Tfiloh on Jan 3.

She scored six points during a 12-0, third-quarter tear to help the Grizzlies take control.

"Aliyah is a good all-around player," Burns said. "We usually have Aliyah playing outside, but we put her under the basket in the second half. I think that was the key to the game."

Burns is also getting steady play from his floor leader, Gibbons.

"She is a natural (shooting guard), but we have asked her to play the point-guard position," Burns said. "She is really helping us."

"The C Conference is a good fit for them," Beth Tfiloh coach Sonya Howell said. "They are growing. They are getting back on the road to where they need to be."

Burns added: "We really like playing in this conference. Our last five games were all decided in the last 5 minutes. That is the kind of league we want to be in."

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