HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Atholton had its run at county supremacy in 2014-15. In 2012-13, it was a River Hill squad that reached the state title game. But no Howard County girls basketball program has had a run quite like Howard over the last decade.
Since Scott Robinson took over the Lions’ program in 2010, they are 140-31 overall and 102-23 in county play, never finishing below fourth place in the league standings. In the last five years, Robinson’s teams have won three county titles — including the last two — and are 103-17 overall and 75-12 against its league foes.
The Lions have won 20 games or more in five of his seven seasons at the helm, and only once have they lost more than six games.
A third straight county title is within reach this winter. Entering the 2017-18 campaign, expectations for Howard remain high after falling short in the 4A North regional championship game in February. Last year’s Howard County Times Player of the Year forward Taylor Addison, who averaged 15.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.7 steals per game, returns for her senior season to lead an experienced squad with state-championship aspirations.
Senior Courtney Furr, who averaged 7.6 points per game and made 24 3-pointers last year and has committed to play Division-I at Stony Brook University, returns alongside sophomores Marisa Sanchez-Henry and Camille Malagar and senior Madison Burris to lead the backcourt. Senior forward Deonna Jones-Carter has been playing with Addison and Furr for several years and will be a contributor down low.
“I think we’ve got a really good ball-handling team. We can put five players out there who can handle the ball,” said Robinson. “We’ve got pretty good shooters, good passing, so those are our strengths. What we lost last year are some taller guards that also were good rebounders, but we’re confident in the girls we have replacing them.”
The gap between Howard and the field is closing, however, thanks in large part to its neighboring rival Long Reach. The Lightning went 8-3 in county and 19-6 overall last year with a young core that includes 2016 Howard County Times Player of the Year senior guard Kiana Williams, who averaged 15.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 4.5 steals per game to garner first-team All-County honors last year. Also returning is first-team All-County junior guard Lyric Swann, who averaged 13.8 points, 2.7 assists and 3.2 steals per game last season.
Junior forward Arianna Briggs-Hall averaged 8.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game a year ago and is expected to be among the leaders in double-doubles this season.
“There is only one ball but [Kiana, Lyric and Arianna] have played together the last three years, so they have a good sense of where each other is on the floor, where they like the ball,” Long Reach coach Kelli Cofield said. “We have some amazing scoring from a lot of players on our team. Not only is it Kiana, Lyric and Arianna, but we have other girls who can create and it gives us a lot of offensive freedom. It gives the girls an opportunity to work on the things they’ve been working on in the offseason.”
While county coaches agree that Howard and Long Reach are the teams to beat heading into the season, Robinson and Cofield are making sure not to overlook the rest of the league.
“For us, the ultimate thing is not just looking at Long Reach because we will overlook some really good teams in the county, and for us some teams out of the county,” Robinson said. “... We will focus on Long Reach when the time comes, but it’s a fun game because they’re very, very talented. Lyric Swann and Kiana Williams present a dynamic that’s very difficult to guard. You’re talking about a Division-I backcourt.”
Said Cofield:” A county championship would be good, but when it comes to the playoffs, Howard is in 4A and we’re in 3A. We’ve been able to compete against them the last few seasons — we’ve split with them the last two seasons — so it’s really not Howard we have to focus on because we’ve had success against them. We have to do well against the other county teams as well.”
The depth in the county this year, according to several coaches, will make every game a challenge.
Robinson said the balance throughout the league continues to improve, making the current state of Howard County girls basketball as good as it has been in years.
“I think the state of girls basketball in Howard County is very, very good,” he said. “I tell people that you can get a private school basketball experience for public school cost. That’s the way I look at it. It’s a great league and it has great balance.”
Mt. Hebron finished 8-3 in county and 14-10 overall and returns one of the best underclassmen in the league in sophomore Satori Valentine. She averaged 9.7 points and 3.0 steals per game and shot 62.6 percent from the free-throw line last year as a freshman to garner second-team All-County honors.
Glenelg has one of the best shooters in the area in senior guard Jess Foster, a 1,000-point scorer who averaged 16.5 points per game and made a county-best 69 3-pointers a season ago. Her combination of experience — she was a second-team All-County selection as a freshman and junior and first-team All-County player as a sophomore — and talent will have the Gladiators in the mix not only for a county title, but for the 2A state championship.
“They have a great leader and shooter in Jess Foster, so you can never count them out,” said Centennial coach Robert Slopek, who returns to lead the Eagles after a seven-year absence. “Their ability to shoot the three and add that to their size, this makes them a dangerous team as well.”
Slopek, who led Centennial to the state final four in 2010, returns to the sideline after a stint as associate head coach at Stevenson University. His squad has also been getting the attention of the county, with sophomore guard Rasa Welsh, who averaged 9.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.1 steals per game last year, leading the way.
Despite graduating six players and losing two more to preseason injuries, Reservoir will be among the toughest teams to beat with two of the best forwards in the league in senior Nia Powell and junior Emily Dorn. The duo combined to average 19.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game last season, as they both finished among the top four in the county in each statistic. Dorn also pitched in with 11.5 points per contest.
“I'd put Emily Dorn and Nia Powell up with the best players in the league, as well as Nat Verna running the point,” said Gators coach Deb Taylor.
Atholton is several months removed from an appearance in the 3A state championship game and graduated its three starting guards. However, the Raiders have several talented forwards back in the fold, including seniors Kelly Simons, Bryce Bathras and Zhuri Cannon. The latter two combined for 17.5 rebounds per game, but Atholton will need someone to step in the scoring role after losing two of the league’s three leading scorers — Francesca Vanegas and Ryan Jones — to graduation.
Marriotts Ridge won the 2A West region title and was the second-to-last county team standing last season. David Bond has taken over a program that won 19 games and its first region championship.
Hammond and Oakland Mills have each been noted as “sleepers” in the county.
The Golden Bears did not return Taylor Liguori but do have senior guard Ashlyn McInerney (9.5 points per game last year) and junior guard/forward Imani Reid, who last season averaged 11.0 points, 2.8 assists and 1.3 blocks per game.
The Scorpions have no seniors on the roster, but new coach Walter Hagins has high expectations for juniors Marley Grenway and Aislynn Riggs.
In the private schools, Glenelg Country returns two of the best players in the IAAM B Conference — junior guard Taylor Gillis and senior guard/forward Taylor Denny, who both were on the all-county team two seasons ago.
The public school season tips off Dec. 5 with five games, while three more teams begin on Dec. 6. The mixture of talented underclassmen like Valentine and Welsh to go with a senior class that includes multiple all-county selections in Foster, Williams, Addison and Swann have coaches around the league excited about what is to come this winter.
“The talent has begun to scatter throughout the county. So this should be a pretty fun and interesting season,” said Hammond coach Raymona Reid.