Thomas Williams and P. J. Smith are finding basketball life a little tougher this year than in the past.
The Aberdeen High School seniors are the only holdovers from last season's 21-3 team, a unit dominated by seniors who were concluding highly successful careers. During their time, the Eagles went to the regional final three successive years.
"Our situation makes you play harder, because we don't have the big team we had last year," Smith said.
A year ago, the 5-foot-10 guard contributed with solid play in a backup role. Still, "I felt I had to pick up my stats. I had to contribute more to the team," he said.
Williams, a 6-4 forward, was a starter last season, averaging 10.8 points (one of four double-figure scorers for that team) and 7.3 rebounds. "I found out I had to work harder to contribute this year," he said. "I had to give leadership."
Ron Petrey, in his fifth season as head coach, agreed.
"What I expected more than anything was leadership from them -- especially Paul [P. J.], because I knew he had to handle the ball more," he said. "And he's done a good job in that respect. He activates the guys in practice, too, and gets on them when he thinks they need it.
"Thomas tends to be less serious, and we're looking for his game to be more consistent. When he wants to play, he can be as good as anybody in the county."
Indications this was not the usual Aberdeen team came early in the season when it lost as many games in December as it did all last season -- to Mount St. Joseph, Gonzaga and Linganore.
Still, the Eagles had stretched their latest string of Harford County League victories to more than 20 before they were beaten by Fallston 10 days ago, 62-59. It was Aberdeen's first loss to a county team since January 1991.
That result got the team's attention, because it bounced back to hand Edgewood its first county defeat of the season, 71-65. The Eagles share first place with a league record of 5-1 (9-4 overall).
Williams sees his and Smith's leadership roles as similar in some ways, a contrast in others.
"I think the other players are working hard because of us," he said. "They see us doing it and they know they have to do it. At the same time, where P. J. can play several positions -- the perimeter as a guard, or on the wing. I'm the big man. I have to go inside, and it's all on me."
His averages reflect this responsibility. They are up to 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Williams has been in and out of the Aberdeen area. He came up through the rec leagues. Then, when his family moved to Baltimore, he attended Lake Clifton for the ninth and 10th grades, playing football and lacrosse.
"I came back last year, because I thought this was a better situation; that overall, these are better surroundings," he said.
As for the team, Smith said: "We are running a lot more because we are smaller and as quick or quicker than last year. I think we're in better shape than before.
"Coach puts the focus on us. He wants us to step up, wants us to be role models, show the others how it's done. My role has changed because last year I wasn't a scorer. Now Coach talks to me about being a leader and a scorer."
Smith sees at least two of his new teammates as having fit in well. Maurice Guy and Ray Primas have adjusted and improved to the point where they have worked their way into the starting rotation.
"Maurice is my cousin, so I'm familiar with his game. He has
helped me a lot and I think our contributions complement each other. This is Ray's first year, and I think it was more a case of him getting used to us rather than the other way around."