The Lions were less than an hour away from getting on the bus to play in their Class 4A state semifinal against Western at Towson’s SECU Arena when their season was suddenly over.
The coronavirus pandemic, which was in its beginning stages of changing everyday life in the United States back on that early March afternoon, caused the MPSSAA to postpone the state basketball tournaments. Nearly two months later, the state officially canceled the state basketball tournaments. No state champions will be awarded, and all 32 remaining girls and boys basketball teams will go down in the history books as semi-finalists.
Howard head coach Scott Robinson, who has coached high school basketball in Howard County since 1991, said talking to the team the day the tournament was postponed was difficult as a coach — even for one with his experience.
“I told the girls that we were 25-0, that we had a tremendous season and that’s how we’ll be remembered,” said Robinson on March 12 a few hours after the tournament was postponed. “In our eyes, we were state champs and we had a perfect season. Unfortunately, there are circumstances beyond our control with the virus that things have been canceled. The girls are absolutely devastated. We all were excited to play, as I’m sure the other teams were, too.”
Now that the season is officially over, the Lions end the 2019-20 season with an undefeated record — a feat that only three other Howard County girls basketball teams have achieved in the last 40 years. Those squads were Mt. Hebron in 1987-88, River Hill in 2005-06 and Mt. Hebron again in 2007-08.
The accomplishment for Howard, however, comes with the caveat that the Lions — unlike the perfect teams before them — weren’t able to win (or compete) for a state title.
“We had a tremendous season. We created history,” said Robinson, who was the 2019-20 Howard County Coach of the Year. “This team was the first undefeated girls basketball team in Howard High history. We’re going to focus on what a tremendous feat that was. They worked so hard, every girl did, and they created a really special season because of their hard work.”
Robinson said his Lions remind him of one of the previous undefeated teams — the Mt. Hebron squad in 2007-08 that he also coached. Those Vikings went 28-0 and won the 2A state title, 55-40, over Poly.
Howard this winter was led by a trio of seniors — Anii Harris (14.4 points per game), Marisa Sanchez-Henry (10.5 ppg) and Camille Malagar (7.8 ppg). The team’s combination of aggressive defense, balanced scoring — that also included standout sophomore Gabby Scott (9.6 ppg) — and an unselfish mentality led the Lions to cruise through the county season with few close games and make it to the state semifinals unscathed.
“The coaching staff talked frequently about the similarities between this team and the 2008 Mt. Hebron team that went undefeated,” Robinson said. “We thought we could also finish the deal like that team did. That team was all guards, and this team was basically all guards. The 07-08 Mt. Hebron team was a team of shooters, while this team had a few more girls who could finish around the basket.”
He also coached against the River Hill team in 2005-06 that won the 3A state title and ended the season 28-0. He said the common thread between all exemplary teams — like the 2005-06 Hawks and the 2019-20 Lions — is tenacious defense and athleticism.
“The River Hill teams were really athletic,” he said. “The big similarity between all of these teams are their athleticism and their ability to get after you on the defensive end. That’s the one common thing ... pressure defense.”
The 1987-88 Vikings, the only other undefeated Howard County team in the last 35 years, went 26-0 and won a Class B state championship under the helm of longtime coach Dave Greenberg.
In the past two months, Robinson has gone back to watch some of the film and highlights from the season. What impresses him just as much as his team’s skill on the court was the enthusiasm from the 10 players on the bench.
“Some of those girls didn’t receive a lot of playing time, but they stood and cheered and supported the girls on the court,” he said. “That’s how I’ll remember the team as much as anything. The girls on the team truly loved and supported each other.”