Each of the three Harford County teams that open play in the state basketball tournaments today faces a different challenge.
At UMBC Fieldhouse, the Fallston girls seek revenge against a defending champion, and at Cole Field House, the Fallston boys go against a team they know too much about, and the Edgewood boys meet a team about which they think they know something.
In the girls Class 1A semifinal, Fallston (18-4) faces a rematch of last year's title game with Williamsport (18-5) tonight at 9.
Coach Nancy Ferguson's top-seeded Cougars are riding an 11-game winning streak and have won 15 of their past 16. All season, the Harford County champions have relied on balanced scoring. Senior forward Pam Toth leads at 10.6, and Ferguson has at least five others capable of a big game.
"That may be our greatest strength," said Ferguson, The Baltimore Sun's Girls Basketball Coach of the Year in the 1991-92 season. "Our balanced scoring shows our opponents they can't key on one person. A balanced team is much harder to defend against."
Defense also has been a strong point for the Cougars, who have used a variety of zones to hold their opponents to just 35 points a game.
In last year's title game, the Cougars played sensational defense in a 34-21 loss, but they must pick up the offense this time if they hope to get by the Wildcats from Washington County.
The revenge factor may provide additional motivation for Fallston, but Williamsport coach Glenn Smith doesn't think that will take the Cougars far. "It could be [a factor] for their team, but I think it's just too long ago and we have a different team," he said.
The Wildcats, however, do return 6-2 center Carla Houser, averaging 18 points. She will provide a challenge for the Cougars' inside starters, the 5-8 Toth, 6-0 Candy Credito and 5-9 Suzy Harrison, all of whom have struggled with foul trouble.
For the boys, Edgewood (21-3), the No. 1 seed in Class 2A, presents a different picture than coach Bob Slagle's state team of two years ago that put up scores in the 90s and had outside scorers. This one has more depth, and is bigger and better inside, but does not shoot as well.
Additionally, there are no big stars and the team relies more on balance and players taking turns in getting a job done.
"We change from game to game as the emphasis changes, and different players step up to take charge," said Slagle, completing his seventh season as Edgewood head coach.
Although the Rams have outscored the opposition by an average of 16 points, the coach knows he'll have to get his players' attention before the 9 p.m. game against Hereford (14-11).
"The players see the Hereford record and know it lost to North Harford. They beat North Harford, 71-34 and 84-52, and I have to convince them comparative scores mean nothing," Slagle said.
"All I know is Hereford is good enough to be a regional champion and we have to go out and play well."
Fallston (14-11), seeded fourth in Class 1A, is faced with a much different problem. The Cougars are simply seen as the next step for Dunbar (18-4), the area's No. 1-ranked team, in an expected march to the state championship.
At least the county team is unfazed by the prospect. "The last time we went to the state tournament , we played Mount Hebron with Barry Young and Ray Peele and we were intimidated. I haven't seen that this time," said coach Robin Hood.
"From our viewpoint, We have to go after them physically; we can't go out there afraid.
"We know they have speed, size and quickness in their favor and are used to a transition game. If we can handle the ball and get into our style of offense, and make it tough for them inside on defens . . .
"At the same time, we'd rather play Dunbar because of the TTC recognition if we win. Cambridge-South Dorchester is 22-0 and not seeded first, so you know they'll be fired up. And if we won against them, we'd still probably have to play Dunbar.
"This way, it's a win-win situation, since everybody expects us to lose. And the players are enthusiastic about the prospect of meeting a nationally recognized team.
"They're glad they drew Dunbar; they're talking about the
players they're going to guard. They're looking at it as an opportunity, a challenge."