Long Reach won its first 13 games this season and seemed unbeatable.
But ever since the Lightning lost to Mount Hebron by 10 points Jan. 29, it has been in a funk, losing three of its past four games.
Saturday's 63-50 loss to Centennial was the most painful one of all.
The Eagles (8-9 overall, 5-8 league) were riding a four-game losing streak and were suffering through a rebuilding season after graduating seven players.
Other things marred their season. Would-be Eagles starter Jesse Chinni broke his arm before tryouts, and after he returned a couple of weeks ago, he sprained his ankle causing him to miss the past two games. Rick Anderson, another strong player, missed three weeks with pneumonia.
No. 16 Long Reach (14-3, 10-3) had beaten Centennial, 69-44, when they played Dec. 18. But Centennial coach Jim Hill is famous for concocting upsets, and got his team well-prepared for the Lightning.
He focused on stopping guards Mike Smelkinson and Jared Bradford, who average about 16 points apiece, and on stopping Long Reach's transition game.
The smaller and slower Eagles gave Long Reach several different defensive looks, including a 3-2 zone, man-to-man and a box-and-one on Smelkinson.
Bradford scored four points and Smelkinson 14. Nick Beckman, Matt Lambie and Greg Palacorolla took turns trying to stop Smelkinson.
"They are both great players and we know that most of Long Reach's points come from them," Hill said. "Smelkinson is a great penetrator, and we just tried to keep him occupied so he couldn't run wild. He still raised havoc.
"Long Reach's inside guys are 6-foot-5 and go hard, so you have to disrupt their offense. We're not big or experienced. We needed to be aggressive inside."
Steve Seh, a 6-1 junior center, scored 14 points and had 10 rebounds for Centennial. Matt Skalka scored 23 points, including 11 of 12 free throws.
Centennial won the game by getting to the foul line, where it sank 23 of 26 shots while the Lightning was only 13-for-22.
"We scored 21 points in the fourth quarter," Hill said. "Most of the fourth quarter they [Long Reach] were four to seven points behind. Every time they'd make a run, they'd foul us. The kids were absolutely overjoyed to win."
Hill pointed to a two-week span with no games as a possible explanation for Long Reach's funk.
The Lightning was 13-0 after beating Oakland Mills Jan. 15. It had a bye on Jan. 17 when other county teams played. Then all county teams were off until Jan. 24 because of exams. Long Reach's varsity team had another bye Jan. 24 while its JV team played Reservoir, which doesn't have a varsity team.
When Long Reach finally played again on Jan. 29, two weeks had gone by. That night it played at Mount Hebron and lost and it hasn't been the same team since the long break.
Smelkinson pointed out some other factors that contributed to Saturday's loss.
"Jared [Bradford] had a 103-degree fever," Smelkinson said. "We shot 3-for-20 from three-point range. And Terrell [Blackwell] got into early foul trouble."
Blackwell, at 6-4, is a rugged player who has had some good offensive games this season. He went scoreless against Centennial.
River Hill (19-3) and Centennial (11-1) each earned the top seed in their respective dual-meet regional tournaments scheduled for tomorrow.
Both teams have undefeated wrestlers.
The Hawks are led by Nick Shevland (26-0) and the Eagles by Mark Nakasone and Dave Nakasone, who are 23-0.
River Hill opens the 4A-3A North with Dulaney and, if victorious, faces South Carroll or Westminster in the finals.
Centennial opens the 2A-1A South with Southern-AA and would then meet either Bethesda-Chevy Chase or Bladensburg in the finals.
The matches are scheduled for 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.