Atholton is ready for step two of building toward becoming a state playoff contender. Last year, the young Raiders were carried on the shoulders of All-County guard and go-to senior Allison Valentino in posting a 7-15 record (3-11 in county).
The Raiders' youth movement continues for Atholton coach Paul Eckert this season as eight of his 12 players are sophomores or freshmen.
"We've got to be the youngest varsity team in the state," Eckert said.
Which is why Eckert will count on lone senior Nicole Blankenship (7.0 ppg), Atholton's leading returning scorer, to provide impact as an on- and off-court leader. The 5-foot-7 Raider forward also carries the burden of being one of the tallest Atholton players.
"Because we are so small, a starting lineup for us is a non-factor," Eckert said. "Our first seven or eight players are interchangeable. They all possess great quickness."
Atholton's top defender is junior guard Chrissy Gavin. "It'll be her chore to stop the Kacy Williamses of the league, but she's a terrific athlete who can stop a ballhandler," Eckert said.
Joining Gavin in the backcourt will be junior Stephanie Van Deusen, sophomore point guard Lea Nichols and last year's junior-varsity MVP Dana Strickland, who earned All-County honors in cross country this fall.
Along the baseline, sophomore starter Mandy Robins returns at one forward position and sophomore Aisha Walcott at the other.
Walcott, who Eckert is counting on for low-post defense, was called up from the junior varsity last season.
Until 6-1 freshman center Linda Mihelcic develops, Atholton will take advantage of its quickness on both ends of the court.
"We're going to try real hard not to get caught up in any half-court games," said Eckert. "On defense, we'll play a little matchup zone and a lot of man-to-man to offset our lack of height."
Eckert said his players are far from inexperienced at basketball despite their youth.
"We had two summer-league teams for the first time this year and started up a successful fall league with Mount Hebron, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake," Eckert said.
"On top of all that, most of the girls went to one summer basketball camp and some went to two or three."
Eckert has no delusions about Atholton earning a postseason spot this year, that goal is still a year away. His reasoning for patience is the strong county competition this year.
"Montgomery County might be No. 1, but top to bottom Howard County has to be ranked second or third in the state. I mean, we've got Mount Hebron, Hammond and Wilde Lake all capable of being at UMBC for the state final four," he said.