On the basketball court, Jenny Mottar, starting forward for Arundel High School, moves confidently to the free-throw line for the first of two foul shots.
Up in the stands, her parents, Alice and John Mottar, tense noticeably.
"C'mon Jenny, please!" Alice Mottar pleads.
First one shot, then the second drops through the net.
John Mottar bolts to his feet -- but more for exhortation than exultation.
"Dee-fense," he shouts. "DEE-fense."
It's early in the second half of the 1996 state girls Class 4A basketball championship at the University of Maryland Baltimore County between Arundel and Sherwood high schools.
The game was one of eight yesterday, at UMBC and the University of Maryland College Park, to crown Maryland scholastic champions in four girls and four boys divisions -- the end of a season involving 8,600 players at 171 public schools.
The action involved not only players like Jen Mottar, a 5-foot-9 senior co-captain who drove for the basket and dove across the floor, but her parents, Alice and John Mottar, who stamped their feet and crossed their fingers, screamed their lungs out and held their breaths.
"We're all nervous wrecks," said Mrs. Mottar.
The Mottars have been at the state high school championship before -- almost exactly a year ago. That's when Arundel lost the title game to Baltimore's Western High School.
But a year ago, Arundel, though undefeated, was the underdog; yesterday, despite two losses, the Arundel Wildcats were the favorites.
"I know if they play their best, they can do it," said Mrs. Mottar. But then, hedging her bet against potential disappointment, she added, "Regardless of how it turns out, she's had a good season."
Mrs. Mottar, 51, a former schoolteacher, and Mr. Mottar, 52, a systems analyst, never figured to be at a state high school tournament once, let alone twice.
Growing up in Illinois, neither showed much interest in sports.
Even when they signed up Jen, the elder of their two daughters, for a recreation league basketball team shortly after the family moved to Gambrills in 1987, it was not because they thought she would one day be a key member of a high school championship contender.
"She was tall for her age," explained Mrs. Mottar. "We thought that was good for her."
Honor student and artist
But Jen, now 17, blossomed as a player, as she did as an honor student and as an artist whose paintings and drawings earned her a juried statewide scholarship.
She was good enough to make the varsity as a freshman. And although she is not the star of the team -- Chavonne Hammond, a high school All-American is -- she has been a key to its success.
Her participation is part of a trend. Nationally, 426,947 girls played basketball last year, according to a survey by the Kansas-based National Federation of State High School Associations, more than any other sport. That's more than a threefold increase from 1971, around the time the push for equality in women's sports began.
But the growing popularity of the girls game can be measured by more than just the number of participants.
As the game has improved to include spin moves and crossover dribbles, more and more fans have come out to watch.
"It is truly becoming a real spectator sport," said Edward F. Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, who has seen attendance at the girls tournament increase fourfold over the past 15 years.
No matter how big the crowd, the parents can often be heard above it, grouped not far from their team's bench.
Mrs. Mottar sometimes wonders about her reaction.
"I think, 'It's only a game,' " she said. "It's got something to do with it being your child and you know how important it is to her."
Jen is aware of her parents' intensity -- and appreciates it.
"I always hear my Dad yelling 'Dee-fense,' " she said. "It's nice. I'm really lucky to have such supportive parents. They don't support me just in athletics."
Time off from work
For Thursday's semifinal game against Prince George's County's Largo High School, Mr. Mottar took the day off, even though tip-off time wasn't until 3 p.m. "I wouldn't be worth anything if I tried to work," he said.
His anxiety was well-founded. With 27 seconds left, the game was 64-all when Jen was fouled.
As her daughter moved to the free throw line, Mrs. Mottar crossed her fingers and closed her eyes. She opened her them in time to see Jen make both shots.
Final score: Arundel 68, Largo 64.
For yesterday's final, the Mottars' younger daughter, Beth, 16, an accomplished musician, passed up a piano competition to come and watch her older sister play -- and felt the pressure. TC "I'm nervous for her," Beth said. "It's scary seeing her out there."
Just before the tip-off, Mrs. Mottar gobbled a handful of Tic-Tac mints. "My mouth gets so dry at these games," she said.
Back in the lead
At halftime, Arundel was ahead by two points, despite a sub-par performance by Jen. "Jen needs a second half," Mr. Mottar said.
After her two early-second-half free throws, Jen hits a layup to give her team a 28-25 lead. But in the next two minutes, she gets two quick fouls -- and a bloodied face.
"That's four," Mr. Mottar said dejectedly, looking at the scoreboard showing Sherwood, in Montgomery County, ahead 34-32.
Jen sits out the next six minutes of the game while her parents yell encouragement to her teammates.
When she comes back with a little over 3 minutes left in the game, her team is ahead 47-43; 15 seconds later, Jen scores to give her team a six-point lead.
After that, Arundel is never threatened.
But not until there are only 10 seconds left in the game do the Mottars let themselves relax.
"I'm starting to feel happy now," Mrs. Mottar said.
Final score: Arundel 57, Sherwood 48.
"Wonderful! Great!!" exulted Mr. Mottar, as his daughter and her teammates hugged each other on the court.
Mrs. Mottar let out a sigh of happiness -- and relief.
"Whoa," she said.
And then: "I wouldn't have wanted to go home with her if they lost."
Pub Date: 3/10/96