As Adrienne Jones finishes her final season with the No. 9 MATHS girls basketball team, she looks forward to playing in college and getting her degree — two achievements that would make her a great role model for future Panthers.
A senior guard, Jones wants to come back to Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences periodically to advise and mentor the next generation of Panthers the way such graduates as Christina Mitchell, Michelle Fitzgerald and Courtney Davis, now playing college basketball on scholarship, have for her team.
Three weeks ago, however, Jones learned that she won't have that opportunity. MATHS will close in June, taking with it one of the area's fastest-rising girls basketball programs.
The Panthers, who play a schedule that includes several nationally ranked teams, are 12-4 and broke into The Baltimore Sun's Top 15 this winter for the first time. In their six years, all under coach C.J. Scott, they have never had a losing season and have sent eight players to college on basketball scholarships, and several others on academic scholarships.
Jones, who gets A's and B's and is drawing attention from a few college programs, could be another scholarship player, and she wants to use the opportunity to study biomedical science or engineering. She also wants to show other girls they can do it, too.
"I wanted to be looked up to the way I look up to the girls who come back and see us," Jones said. "When seniors graduate, they always want to come back to the school and support the basketball team and show the players they can do it. I wanted to be an example to them about what to do and how to do it, because you can use basketball to get a free education, and you can do anything you want as long as you stick to it."
Jones joined several of her teammates at the Baltimore City school board hearing before the members voted on Jan. 5 to close MATHS, a public charter school with about 330 students in grades six through 12. According to the school board report, it will close MATHS because of ineffective governance and faulty leadership, as well as low academic performance in grades six through eight.
Scott said he was shocked his seniors were so upset about the closing — perhaps, he said, more so than the younger girls, who must find new schools to attend in the fall.
"That just tells you how much they grew in this program. A lot of them really grew as people," Scott said. "Adrienne was really shy and kept to herself, and to see her personality over the last couple years explode out, I can understand why she would want that same opportunity for other girls."
For most of the girls, their identity as basketball players is a major part of their experience at MATHS. Many of the Panthers came to the school to play for Scott, president of the Baltimore Starz Amateur Athletic Union program.
"The team has put the school on the map, because as soon as you mention MATHS, the first thing that anyone mentions is the girls basketball program," Scott said. "The fact that we've had eight girls have full rides to college between Division I, Division II and JuCo in that short amount of time … proves what we're doing here is working. That's one of the disappointing things about the school closing. I feel like we're doing really good things for kids in a small setting, and some of those kids are going to get lost when they have to go into a bigger building. That really bothers me."
The Panthers play in the National Independent Schools Athletic Association, which includes 10 teams from Canada to Florida, including Riverdale Baptist, ranked No. 2 in USA Today's Top 25, and National Christian Academy, No. 8 in USA Today. This season, MATHS has beaten two teams ranked in The Sun's Top 15 — No. 14 New Town and No. 15 John Carroll — and is scheduled to play at No. 5 Roland Park on Feb. 6.
Two of the younger players, junior Niyah Scott and sophomore Celestine Smith, said they, too, were devastated by the closing.
Niyah Scott, the coach's niece, is a straight-A student ranked at the top of her class. She plans to become a psychiatrist.
"Going into my senior year, I have to find a whole new school, make friends," she said. "And not really having a lot of experience in basketball, wanting to play basketball my senior year might be kind of hard. I might just become home-schooled."
Smith hasn't made a decision either.
"I felt heartbroken. I love this school. I love my team," she said, adding that she needs more time to figure out what to do next year.
Both girls said no matter what they do, they won't stop playing basketball with the Baltimore Starz. But they'll miss MATHS.
"When I walk up the street, people ask me, 'Do you play basketball?'" said Smith, a 6-foot-3 center. "I say yes, and they say, 'Who do you play for? … I say, 'MATHS,' and they say, 'Oh ... I've got to come see you play one day.'"
C.J. Scott makes sure the girls know about those who built the foundation they play on, including Mitchell, now playing at Monmouth; Fitzgerald, now playing at North Carolina A&T; and Davis, now playing at Glenville State in West Virginia. All three were back at MATHS over the Christmas break to talk to the players.
Scott built MATHS' reputation on the road and even played at Riverdale Baptist and Nazareth, N.Y., when they were ranked No. 1 in the country. The Panthers were beating Nazareth until the fourth quarter, when, Scott said, "They showed us why we were still a first-year program."
Still, the Panthers finished 14-4 that year.
The next year, Riverdale Baptist came to Baltimore to play MATHS, an unlikely trip for the Crusaders to play such a new program.
"We got more respect outside of Baltimore than inside of Baltimore until recently. The other schools we played in D.C. and New York and Prince George's County, they really thought highly of us," said Scott, who could get few teams in Baltimore to play him those first few years — although Poly and Dunbar did — but his AAU connections helped him schedule some top out-of-town teams.
Institute of Notre Dame coach Robert DuBose likes playing MATHS, and his Penguins have played them three times, most recently in a close game won by the Panthers at the Public vs. Private Challenge earlier this month.
"He's always playing top teams and … I think it helps my girls to be able to play faster paced and play more teams that play hard," said DuBose, who coaches with Scott in the Starz program. "I want to play the best programs out there, and MATHS is one of the best programs out there. He gets the most out of his players."
The Panthers have 12 games remaining before closing out the season at the NISAA championships March 4-6 at Pawleys Island, S.C. C.J. Scott said they couldn't afford the trip last year but made it a priority this year well before the closing was announced.
The players look forward to a big finish for their program.
"We came on a journey all together," Smith said, "and we're on our way to the finish line. We're going to make it and make a name for ourselves. That's all we can do now."