One of the best motivators to win a state championship is to come so close the year before.
As the Old Mill girls basketball team gets ready for its first playoff game on Tuesday, the pain of a loss in last year's state semifinals is still fresh in its mind. The team has done what it needed to do during the regular season by going undefeated and locking up home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots (22-0) are considered the favorite to get out of the Class 4A East Region for the second straight year, but they understand what it takes each step of the way.
"The last couple days of practice, we've been like, 'We need to get ready. It's time,'" said Old Mill coach Rick Smith, following the team's practice on Friday. "The nice thing about having a Tuesday game is we can practice on Monday. Today (Friday) was supposed to be a stronger practice than we've had, then Monday will definitely be stronger."
As the Patriots ramp up the intensity of the practices leading up to Tuesday's Class 4A East Region Section I semifinal against Severna Park, they're also getting healthier. The team still managed to go undefeated during the regular season despite injuries to three key starters. The most notable injury is to Rebecca Lee, who will miss the remainder of the season after injuring her knee in Old Mill's game with Annapolis on Feb. 9. Lee, one of the top post players in the county, averaged 11.2 points and 13.4 rebounds before going down. Brandi Hall and Briana Ward have each also gone down with injuries, but are back practicing as the team gets ready for its first game since knocking off Meade in final game of the regular season on Feb. 19.
"I'm feeling pretty good and my ankle is starting to feel a little bit better," said Hall, who missed three games with a sprained ankle. "I'm starting to feel better and getting back to where I was before."
Hall has played in 18 games and is averaging 10.3 points, three assists and three steals per game. She is one of three starters who averages double figures in points, while Alayshia Dailey averages 9.4 points and 4.3 steals per game.
"We've tried to bring up the intensity, because we know that now you either win or go home," Hall said. "We all have one common goal, so we want to keep practicing at a business-like pace."
Briana Ward is also poised to return after missing more than a month with a strained hamstring. She played in just 13 games before going down, and with Lee out for the remainder of the season, will need to team with freshman Sydney Faulcon down low to try and match Lee's production.
"I don't really feel any pressure, but I do feel like I need to come out with more intensity and aggression than I normally do," Ward said. "It does feel nice to have some of our players back, but I do miss Rebecca and it's going to feel weird being out there without her."
Senior Kaneshia Afi is averaging 13.6 points and 3.5 steals a game for the Patriots, who went undefeated in the county for the second straight year. They added wins over St. Vincent Pallotti and Roland Park of the IAAM A Conference, and also knocked off North Point in a rematch of last year's Class 4A East Region final. They defeated Severna Park, 64-48, in the teams' regular-season meeting on Feb. 17. North Point is the top seed in Section II, so the teams could meet again later this week if they're each able to win two home games.
"We just have to stay true to ourselves, keep ourselves level-headed and not get cocky," Ward said. "Once we take someone for granted, it's easy for them to just push us over."
After suffering through one of their worst games shooting in last year's state semifinal loss to Paint Branch, the Patriots vowed to get back this year. Despite the injuries, they took care of the first step by securing the home games in the playoffs. Still, the team knows the season could end with losses in any of the next three games prior to the state semifinals.
"It doesn't matter who we play, because if they give us their best game and win we're going home," Smith said. "You're 22-1 and done. They don't want this to end, and they've been that way since the beginning."