When Hammond's girls basketball team gathered in November, the Bears knew the season would involve a new challenge that would require a different approach.
No longer were the Bears a young team that surprised everyone with fast maturity. The Bears hit their stride late in the 1991-92 season, upset Mount Hebron in the Class 2A, Region III title game and rode that emotion to their first state championship -- all despite having a team that started two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
The defending-state champion Bears knew it would be different this time. This Hammond team would have to deal with the weight of great expectations. This team would surprise no one.
"We knew that every team who played us was going to play us a lot harder, since we were defending state champions. As a coach, you worry about that," said Hammond coach Joe Russo, the Baltimore Sun's Howard County Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. "It's hard to be up for every game."
The Bears lived up to expectations. Russo took care to make their schedule tougher this season, and the Bears played in the always-tough IABBO tournament in December. After a breezy 5-0 start, the Bears hit a wall at the IABBO tournament. They lost to Old Mill and DuVal and wound up a disappointing sixth.
Those defeats gave Hammond an idea of how tough it would be to repeat as state champs. The Bears learned that lesson again in a mid-January loss to Mount Hebron, then once more in an overtime defeat at Hebron five weeks later.
Hammond had to settle for second place in the county standings.
"I was a little disappointed that we didn't win the county. My big disappointment was that we didn't beat Hebron during the regular season," Russo said.
But the Bears shook off those defeats when it counted. For the second straight year, they rebounded to knock off Hebron in the regionals. Then, they won their second straight regional championship and came within an overtime period of winning their second state crown, before falling to Middletown on Wednesday in the 2A final, 53-48.
How did Hammond get that far? First with talent. The Bears had the most balanced, athletic team in a tough county, and those advantages carried them.
While proven players, such as Kacy Williams and Sonia Keiner, continued to perform at high levels, Kristen Moraz, Tameka Harrison and Tiki Nicholson turned their games up a notch. By the end of the season, freshman forward Kellye Townsend, used sparingly in the beginning of the season, was contributing lengthy, valuable minutes in the low post.
The Bears also did it by being more mentally tough than last year. Russo credits a different approach in practice and the presence of assistant Al Moraz, who has done wonders in his three years with the girls team.
"Al is a big part of us winning. He knows the game, and we work well together," Russo said. "What we agreed on this year was to drill them harder on fundamentals, and that's really Al's bag. I teach more about the team concept. We made practices harder. Some of our practices were harder than the games we played."
In the last two years, the Bears have been one of the harder teams to overcome. They are 43-9 and have gone to the state finals both years. With nearly the whole team back next year, look for Hammond to make another trip to the 2A tournament.