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Howard senior Anii Harris, pictured here going up for a layup against Marriotts Ridge last season, is one of the Lions' five returning starters, as the Lions hope to win their sixth Howard County championship in the last seven seasons.
Howard senior Anii Harris, pictured here going up for a layup against Marriotts Ridge last season, is one of the Lions' five returning starters, as the Lions hope to win their sixth Howard County championship in the last seven seasons.

Heading into every Howard County girls basketball season for the last decade, Howard has been looked at as a top contender.

That hasn’t changed this season, as the Lions return five of their top six players from last year’s team and hope to win at least a share of their sixth Howard County championship in the last seven seasons.

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“We know we get everyone’s best shot,” said Howard head coach Scott Robinson, whose team shared the county championship with Long Reach last season after a 13-3 county campaign. “Everyone wants to beat Howard, and we thrive on that."

River Hill, meanwhile, was the last Howard County team standing earlier this calendar year, as the Hawks won the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Class 2A championship.

Both teams, along with several other local teams aiming to challenge for the county crown, are hoping to continue their successful 2018-19 campaigns and improve in 2019-20.

The only major departure from last season’s Howard team is Lauryn Russell, who transferred to Pallotti. The Lions bring back senior captains Anii Harris (13 points per game), Marisa Sanchez-Henry (10 ppg) and Camille Malagar (7.7 ppg).

Howard senior captains Anii Harris, Camille Malagar and Marisa Sanchez-Henry talk Lions basketball during a preseason practice.

“They’re very talented and they’re great girls,” said Robinson of his three captains. “They’re very focused and they want to do well this season. They’ve been great leaders who seek putting the team above themselves.”

Gabby Scott, who scored 11.2 points per game as a freshman post player last season, and Emily Durkee, who split time as the fifth starter and the first player off the bench, also return in the Lions’ starting five.

“Gabby ... gives us a presence inside,” said Sanchez-Henry. “Emily is a shooter and she makes good decisions on and off the ball.”

While Howard has been dominant in county play in recent years, the Lions haven’t had as much success in the state playoffs, due in part to being in the difficult Class 4A North region. This season, however, the Lions are in 4A East with schools from Anne Arundel County.

Howard’s three senior captains said the key to playoff success is taking every regular season game seriously. They said the team may not have been completely focused for every regular season game, which could have been a reason the Lions had to play on the road at Western in their second state playoff game.

“This year, we’re leaving no reasonable doubt,” said Harris. “We’re going hard 24-7 on and off the court. We want it.”

“I think our senior leaders know where they want to go, and I don’t think they’ll allow the team to get complacent,” Robinson said. “... We had to play Western down there last year, and we know the importance of having home court in the playoffs. We can’t take anyone for granted.”

River Hill's Kennedy Clark (center) and Saniha Jackson (right), pictured here celebrating after beating Middletown in the Class 2A state championship, are returning for the Hawks this season.
River Hill's Kennedy Clark (center) and Saniha Jackson (right), pictured here celebrating after beating Middletown in the Class 2A state championship, are returning for the Hawks this season. (Steve Ruark / For Baltimore Sun Media)

River Hill, meanwhile, needs to replace two key seniors from last season’s state championship team — Emily Masker (9.4 ppg) and Maggie O’Keefe.

Head coach Teresa Waters expects seniors Kennedy Clark (10.4 ppg) and Saniha Jackson (12.3 ppg) to build upon their successful 2018-19 campaigns to lead the Hawks.

River Hill seniors Kennedy Clark and Saniha Jackson talk Hawks girls basketball during a preseason practice.

“Kennedy and Saniha are the glue,” Waters said. “They’ve been with the program for four years. They’ve grown by leaps and bounds."

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Waters is also looking for Anhyia Smith to take the sophomore leap this season. Smith averaged 12.2 points a game last season for the Hawks as a freshman.

“Anhyia brings a different flavor to our team, and she’s so talented,” said Waters, who is in her 22nd season at the helm. “We are looking for her to take that next step. I’ve seen some more maturity from her, and I want to continue to see it.”

After a 12-4 county season, River Hill ran through the Class 2A playoffs for the program’s first state title since 2005-06. The Hawks ended their season on an 11-game winning streak after starting the campaign 2-4.

“The county really prepared us,” Waters said. “In the final four of our state bracket, we had the most losses, but to give credit to Howard County, the other teams and coaches really prepare us for that next step.”

River Hill will move back to Class 3A this season in a new playoff system. Each region is still separated into two sections, but under the new system, the winner of each section — now called “Region I” and “Region II” — advances to the state quarterfinals, which will be re-seeded 1-8 based on regular season winning percentage.

The old format pitted section champions from the same region against one another in a region championship to advance to the state semifinal round. The potential is now there for two teams in the county to play in a state final.

Ten of the county’s 12 teams are now slotted into 3A East, with Region I consisting of Centennial, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron and Wilde Lake, in addition to Manchester Valley and Westminster. Region II has Atholton, Hammond, Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Reservoir and River Hill. Elsewhere, Glenelg is in Region I of 2A West and Howard is in Region I of 4A East.

While River Hill was the last Howard County team standing, the Hawks didn’t share the county championship with Howard. That was Long Reach, which has been a mainstay in the top third of the Howard County standings for the last four seasons. The Lightning, however, don’t return any starters and have a new coach, Keith Williams, this season. The most significant of the team’s losses is Lyric Swann, who was named Player of the Year the last two seasons and is a freshman guard at UMBC.

Finishing her high school career as the all-time leading scorer in Long Reach basketball history, senior Lyric Swann has been named the Howard County girls basketball Player of the Year for a second straight season.

The only two Lightning players who have varsity experience are Ashleigh Nagle and Ramiyah Baldwin, a transfer from North Carolina. Williams said the young talent, especially freshman point guard Tamir Whittle, is exciting to have.

“Our team is very young," Williams said. “But as far as team strengths, we will pride ourselves on playing smart solid team defense, and working as hard as we can to be the best that we can be on that end of the floor every night.”

Reservoir went 11-5 in county play and 17-7 overall last year, and Deb Taylor’s squad brings back senior point guard Tiffany Hooker (17 ppg) and Kate Abunassar. However, the Gators will need to replace Emily Dorn (18.9 ppg), Nat Verna, Abby Bailey and Karis Turner. Dorn and Verna graduated, Bailey transferred to Bullis and Turner, a sophomore, is focusing on soccer.

“Despite what it looks like on paper [losing six seniors and eight players overall], we expect to be in the mix,” Taylor said. “Losing an All-Met player like Emily Dorn is a challenge, but Tiffany Hooker is a special talent and we will make up for Emily’s loss by a very well-rounded team game.”

Along with Long Reach and Reservoir, there are several other Howard County teams that have young rosters.

Oakland Mills, which went 11-5 in county play in 2018-19 and was a state semifinalist in 2017-18, returns only two players with varsity experience — seniors Jazmine Washington (12.4 ppg) and Ty’Asia McDuffie. Head coach Walt Hagins hopes Washington, senior Jaidyn Harris — who was injured last season — and the rest of the young Scorpions’ roster will be able to fill in for the four starters that they lost.

Oakland Mills senior Jazmine Washington talks Scorpions girls basketball during a preseason practice.

“Jazmine is going to be the glue,” Hagins said. “She’s coming off two solid all-state, all-county campaigns. We’re going to rely on her more than ever on the court and as a leader.”

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Atholton hopes to replace the seven seniors it graduated from last year’s 7-16 squad. The Raiders return starters Natalie Blair and Mia Hargrett. Blair a senior guard and a four-year varsity player scored six points a game last season.

Glenelg returns only one starter (Abby Gillespie) from last year’s team, while Hammond has only one senior (Keisean Brown) on its roster. Gillespie scored 5.7 points a game last season, while Brown averaged 4.3. The Golden Bears also welcome first-year head coach Alexis Briscoe to lead the program.

Other teams in the county, however, return significant experience from last season.

Mt. Hebron is returning four players with starting experience, including one of the top players in the county — Tori Valentine (20 ppg). Valentine will be joined in the starting lineup by junior Kate Milano and sophomores Audrey Harrington and Erin Dixon.

Mt. Hebron senior Tori Valentine talks Vikings basketball during a preseason practice.

“We have a young team. Tori is our only senior,” Ahearn said. “She is a leader on and off the court. She is going to have to help the younger girls to understand what we do. Her play is just a small part of what makes her an amazing young lady.”

Centennial returns four starters from its team that won a game in the state playoffs and would’ve ended the season 13-11 if not for the nine games they had to forfeit for playing an ineligible player. Rasa Welsh, Brook Anderson, Tori Pearson and Lauren Pellegrini all return for the Eagles. However, Welsh, who led the team with 12 points per game, will miss most of the season due to an injury.

Head coach Rob Slopek said he hopes to have her back by February. In the meantime, he expects Pearson to have a “breakout” junior campaign.

After competing with an ineligible player on its roster, Centennial girls basketball is forfeiting the first 17 games it played this winter — including nine wins — following an investigation by the Howard County Athletics Office.

Marriotts Ridge returns three starters in Emma Morath, Emma Miller and Morgan Lee. Morath, a senior, led the Mustangs with 9.8 points per game last season. Wilde Lake, meanwhile, returns every starter, including senior Kalani Corkeron (12.5 ppg).

As for the private schools, Glenelg Country will have a young squad this season in the IAAM B Conference. The Dragons bring back only two starters from last year’s team, including junior guard and 2018-19 IAAM all-star Ashlyn Bender.

Chapelgate, meanwhile, hopes to improve on its 2-15 record from last year in the IAAM C Conference.

Here’s a look at all 14 local teams entering the 2019-20 season:

Atholton

Coach: Julia Reynold, seventh season

2018-19 record: 5-11 county, 7-16 overall

Returning starters: 2

Top players: Seniors Natalie Blair (G) and Erica Morton (G/F); sophomore Mia Hargrett (G).

Coach’s corner: “We will experience some growing pains, but we are up to the challenge and are motivated to improve any way we can. … Our strength will be our athleticism and versatility. We have several people who can play multiple positions. We just need to figure out the right combinations.” — head coach Julia Reynold

Centennial

Coach: Rob Slopek, third season (eighth overall)

2018-19 record: 2-14, 4-20

Returning starters: 4

Top players: Seniors Rasa Welsh (F), Brook Anderson (G) and Sarah Sopchick (G); junior Tori Pearson (F); sophomore Lauren Pellegrini (G).

Coach’s corner: “I think our strength will be the experience we bring back. We have played some very young lineups over the past two years, and this year we have some juniors and seniors with a lot of varsity experience.” — head coach Rob Slopek

Glenelg

Coach: David Ebbe, second season

2018-19 record: 4-12, 5-18

Returning starters: 1

Top players: Senior Abby Gillespie (F).

Coach’s corner: “I think we will be younger and more athletic, overall, but we will also have a significant number of juniors and seniors who will provide much-needed leadership and experience.” — head coach David Ebbe

Hammond

Coach: Alexis Briscoe, first season

2018-19 record: 7-9, 13-11

Returning starters: 2

Top players: Senior Keisean Brown (G); junior Jocelyn Fogle (F); freshman Maya Woodson (F).

Coach’s corner: “We are going to want to convert as many fast breaks as possible, which means intense defensive pressure. I also think that our post play will bring a lot of strength as well.” — head coach Alexis Briscoe

Howard

Coach: Scott Robinson, ninth season (23rd overall)

2018-19 record: 13-3, 19-4

Returning starters: 5

Top players: Seniors Anii Harris (G), Camille Malagar (G) and Marisa Sanchez-Henry (G); junior Emily Durkee (G); sophomore Gabby Scott (C).

Coach’s corner: “It has been a true pleasure coaching this team so far. It is a great group of girls that is really focused.” — head coach Scott Robinson

Long Reach

Coach: Keith Williams, first season

2018-19 record: 14-2, 18-5

Returning starters: 0

Top players: Senior Ashleigh Nagle (G); sophomore Ramiyah Baldwin (G); freshmen Tamir Whittle (PG) and Jaylah Putman (F).

Coach’s corner: “We have one player returning from last year’s team. We didn’t make cuts this year. We have six freshman, three sophomores and one senior on our roster, and this is my first year as a varsity coach. We are young, but our goal is to work as hard as we can and look to grow and improve every day. I figure if we do this for the next four years, we will be solid when it’s all said and done.” — head coach Keith Williams

Marriotts Ridge

Coach: Sarah Miller, second season

2018-19 record: 7-9, 10-14

Returning starters: 3

Top players: Seniors Emma Morath (F) and Emma Miller (G); junior Morgan Lee (G).

Coach’s corner: “We have a lot of size this season with three players (at least) 6-feet tall. I think our post play will allow us to open the court for our younger guards to attack the basket and hit open shots.” — head coach Sarah Miller

Mt. Hebron

Coach: Tierney Ahearn, second season

2018-19 record: 10-6, 14-9

Returning starters: 4

Top players: Senior Tori Valentine (PG); junior Kate Milano (F); sophomores Audrey Harrington (C) and Erin Dixon (G).

Coach’s corner: “We will play fast. We have very quick guards that can pressure the entire court. … I am expecting all of our returners to step up and make an impact, as well as Danielle Bodziak (sophomore) and Raelis Vidal (freshman).” — head coach Tierney Ahearn.

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Oakland Mills

Coach: Walt Hagins, third season

2018-19 record: 11-5, 18-6

Returning starters: 1

Top players: Seniors Jazmine Washington, Jaiden Harris and Ty’Asia McDuffie.

Coach’s corner: “Every game in Howard County is a competitive game, no matter who you play. … The key for us is to get back to what we do as a program, which is playing solid defense.” — head coach Walt Hagins

Reservoir

Coach: Deb Taylor, fifth season

2018-19 record: 11-5, 17-7

Returning starters: 2

Top players: Senior Tiffany Hooker (G); junior Kate Abunassar (G).

Coach’s corner: “(I am) encouraged by the work ethic and attitude of the returners and newcomers, as well as the depth through all 11 varsity players, including 3 freshmen. Our defense is way ahead of our offense at this point, as expected, but most of these girls play AAU ball and I expect the basketball IQ to be strong. ... We are not big, but what we lack in size, we make up in athleticism and team chemistry.” — head coach Deb Taylor

River Hill

Coach: Teresa Waters, 22nd season (39th overall)

2018-19 record: 12-4, 20-7

Returning starters: 3

Top players: Seniors Kennedy Clark (PG) and Saniha Jackson (F); sophomore Anhyia Smith (G/F).

Coach’s corner: “The nucleus of our team is returning. Kennedy Clark and Saniha Jackson have been on the team since ninth grade and will be the leaders of the team.” — head coach Teresa Waters

Wilde Lake

Coach: Rhonda Corkeron, third season

2018-19 record: 0-16, 1-20

Returning starters: 5

Top players: Seniors Kalani Corkeron (G/F) and Lily Richards (F/C).

Coach’s corner: “This, being my third year coaching, has been the longest a coach has been at Wilde Lake for quite a while. It is finally coming together, and I hope to have a season fitting for our seniors who have worked through the lows of a rebuilding team.” — head coach Rhonda Corkeron

Chapelgate

Coach: Kevin Florent, third season

2018-19 record: 0-10 IAAM C, 2-15

Returning starters: 2

Top players: Seniors Joi Thornton (PG) and Jayden Henderson (PF).

Coach’s corner: “(We are) a young team with only two experienced players. The rest are new freshmen.” — head coach Kevin Florent

Glenelg Country

Coach: Will Harper, fourth season

2018-19 record: 6-5 IAAM B, 13-11

Returning starters: 2

Top players: Juniors Ashlyn Bender (SG) and Caroline Haynes (PF).

Coach’s corner: “As a young team in a league with lots of experienced teams, we will be relying on our youthful energy and defense to frustrate our opponents. Too inexperienced to know that they should be intimidated, our young cadre of players are ready to push division-I talent into tough shots and uncomfortable positions. Our fearless tenacity should mature into determined defense and a polished offensive system by 2020.” — head coach Will Harper

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