At first, the Bel Air boys' basketball team didn't understand the methods behind coach Chris Harney's madness.
When the team was at Frostburg State for a basketball camp two summers ago, players fumed when Harney made his daily knock on their door at 5:45 a.m., imploring them to get out of bed and begin a workout, hours before other campers even awoke.
Six months earlier, the Bobcats were downright confused when their first-year head coach pulled them out of Glen Burnie's gym 15 minutes before tip-off and implemented a totally new offense.
And Harney sure didn't win any popularity contests when one of his first acts as Bel Air head coach was to cut seniors from the varsity squad and replace them with freshmen.
But nobody is questioning Harney anymore -- not with the Bobcats off to their best start in program history. Even with a loss to Aberdeen on Jan. 23, No. 16 Bel Air is 14-1 and ranked for the first time in what is believed to be two decades.
"I think the message he sent early was that he wanted us to play at a level Bel Air has never seen," said Randy Jones, one of two Bobcat seniors. "So we decided that we were going to put in the work and take the challenge. We keep winning so there's no reason to doubt him."
With a 6-1 record in the top division of the Upper Chesapeake Athletic Conference and a Feb. 18 rematch looming with Aberdeen, tied for first with Bel Air, the Bobcats are eyeing their first county title.
Said junior guard Miguel Negron: "That would mean everything to us."
"The day I got the job, I told those guys that I wanted to win a county championship," said Harney, 33, who played at St. Mary's College in southern Maryland, graduating in 1996. "I want a banner up there that they can look at and say, 'I was on that team.' "
After coaching at the JV level for one season at Great Mills High School (St. Mary's County) and two at Patuxent (Calvert), Harney became the Bobcats assistant coach under Bill Georg prior to the 2000-01 season.
Georg retired the next season and Harney inherited the job and went about implementing his system with all the subtlety of a run-away freight train.
"I wasn't being cocky but I knew how hard we were going to work and that success was going to come from it," said Harney, who speaks regularly to legendary DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten (now retired), whose camp Harney works at. "I knew I'd find guys who were committed to getting better. If you weren't, you weren't going to be around."
Harney enrolled the Bobcats into fall, summer and spring leagues, preaching a year-round commitment to the sport. The summer camp he started attracts some of the county's top players.
However, his boldest stroke in that first year came in his roster composition. Negron and Brandon Rodick, two freshmen, made the varsity team, as did Jones and T.J. Jordan, both sophomores.
Meanwhile, some older players didn't survive final cuts, including Negron and Rodick's older brothers, both seniors.
Harney called making those cuts, "the hardest thing I've had to do," but acknowledged that the team's success this year, especially in the backcourt, has justified his moves.
"I thought it was a bad decision [to cut his older brother], but I knew he knew what he was doing," said Rodick, a 5-foot-10 junior guard who is second in Harford County in steals and assists. "When he got here, things changed immediately."
The team's fortunes, however, didn't. In Harney's first season in 2001-02, the Bobcats went 6-17. Last year's 14-7 season constituted a major breakthrough.
"The tremendous amount of energy Chris puts in has rubbed off and he has kids dedicated to improving," said Bobcats assistant George Constantine.
Jones, a 5-10 guard who exemplifies the Bobcats' blue-collar approach, remembered the day when Bel Air went on the road and faced ranked Glen Burnie.
Harney took one look at the Gophers varsity squad and knew the Bobcats couldn't win by playing their taller opponent straight up.
So Harney took his team outside and, using a lamp post as a basket, taught the Bobcats the nuances of the four-corner offense in 10 minutes. Bel Air lost 33-31 on a last-second put-back, but the Bobcats got the message.
"I remember it was freezing and I was like, 'What am I doing out here? " recalled Jones. "But at that point, we knew how much he wanted to win. After that, I became dedicated to the program."
Jones also had to endure Harney's 5:45 a.m. wakeup calls at that camp two summers ago.
After a couple of days, players started barricading furniture behind their doors.
Said Harney: "I knew they hated me at times, but that week I pushed them harder than I ever have, to give them a taste of the work ethic they needed."
"We're in high school, so of course we're going to complain a little bit, but we knew we had to do it," said Jordan, a versatile 6-3 forward who averages a team-leading 16 points per game. "The hard work we've put in has paid off. Our record speaks for itself."
Harney, who does keep practices loose, hasn't let up over the past two years either. The Bobcats traditionally meet at 6 a.m. on Saturdays for practice, followed by a voluntary film session, where the team snacks on pizza while reviewing its previous game or going over Harney's extensive scouting notes.
The Bobcats' nucleus of Rodick, Jones, Jordan and Negron has been playing together since sixth grade, but the team bonding has been big for other newcomers, such as Lake Clifton transfer Kevin Goines.
Goines' emergence over the past couple of weeks -- he averages 13 points per game -- has given Bel Air, which relies a lot on its shooting and its quickness, another dimension.
"It's like the old expression, 'You surround yourself with good people and good things happened,' " Harney said. "That kind of sums up our whole season so far."