In this, the final boys basketball season before Southern of Baltimore becomes known as Digital Harbor High School, seniors such as Jerrell Green are set on leaving their mark.
"You already see a lot of state championship banners in the gym, and I want one of my own," said Nicholas Woodard, a junior who transferred from Walbrook to Southern, whose three state titles rank second only to Dunbar's eight among Baltimore City schools.
"To be able to say I was on the last Southern team that won states, and to come back as champs the next year, I'm looking forward to accomplishing something like that. We can achieve that if we keep on winning."
Ranked No. 16 in the preseason poll after going 15-8 and reaching last year's 2A state semifinals, Southern is 12-0 (3-0 in Baltimore City's Division I) in its second year under Michael Wise, who replaced longtime head coach Meredith Smith after being his assistant for 16 years.
The No. 1 Bulldogs are a blend of returning players such as Green, senior Desean Williams and junior Reginold Holmes, and transfers such as Nicholas Woodard and 6-foot-8 Brandon Moore (Reginald Lewis).
"Nick [Woodard] and Reggie [Holmes] will be wearing Digital Harbor jerseys next year," said Green, a third-year starting guard. "But they know they can help the seniors, and the seniors know they can help them. We all want to go out with a bang."
The Bulldogs burst onto the scene last month, beating area powers Dunbar, Randallstown and Douglass - winners of a combined 12 state championships since 1993 - over a four-day span.
"We felt like the homecoming opponent, having to play Randallstown in the first game because people looked at us like we were the underdogs in the beginning of the year," said Williams, a co-captain with Green. "All three of those teams were bigger than us, more athletic than us, but we beat them all in one weekend and showed we could be No. 1. We're always hearing from teachers and students who support us. They want another state championship from us."
Southern is being transformed into Digital Harbor, a school with a technology-based curriculum.
"The kids know the days of Southern [High] are numbered. The fall teams will officially be called 'The Digital Harbor Rams,' " said Wise, who helped coach Southern squads to state titles in 1992-93, 1993-94 and 1995-96.
"I have seniors that I've coached from JV years that have never won a championship in [Southern uniforms]," said Wise, who turns 52 on Feb. 27. "They understand that the city league is challenging, but they've vowed to win a championship and they're prepared to meet those challenges."
And they've risen to the occasion.
Green averages 17 points, 13 assists, five rebounds and two steals. He has converted 75 percent of his free throws. Williams, a 6-3 forward, has added 12 points, eight assists and 11 rebounds per game.
Holmes, another 6-3 forward, averages 14 points and five rebounds, and both Woodard and Trannie Hayes contribute 10 points and five rebounds each.
"We're like a family," said Moore, a dominant rebounder who averages four blocks. "[Playing alongside teammates] is something I look forward to every day. That and seeing those state championship banners every time I walk into the gym."
Green is reminded of a promise he made to Wise "every time I put on that Southern jersey," he said. "I told Coach that I was going to get him another state championship before I leave. That's what I'm trying to go out and do."
A former Dunbar player who graduated in 1970, Wise had coached two successful AAU teams - guiding one of them through an unbeaten club championship season - before being hired as Smith's assistant.
"I saw in Michael Wise a young man whose character was impeccable, and an excellent addition to our program," said Smith, 61, who retired for "a combination of personal things I had to deal with," but still teaches physical education at Southern.
"Mike was a dedicated, loyal student of the game," Smith said. "He was very much a part of the construction of the winning tradition we had established. When it came time for me to step down, I thought the program couldn't be left in better hands than Michael's."
But former principal Barry Williams wasn't sold. "He was a little skeptical initially about hiring someone outside of the school," Smith said.
"I went to him and convinced him that Mike was the best thing for the program, and after interviewing him, [Williams] was pleased and gave him a shot," Smith said. "Now you can see that Mike's off to a running start, but I'm not surprised by anything he's done."
Wise regularly borrows time from his family clothing and custodial businesses to drop by Southern High and speak with the players' teachers as part of a monitoring system that has been approved by principal Shirley A. Cathorne, who replaced Williams in August.
"He's been super fantastic in that regard, and the players hold their shoulders and heads high," said Cathorne, adding that eight players made the recent honor roll she posts throughout the school.
"I go down to the school two or three days a week and consult with their teachers. If they're not performing in the classroom, they're not going to get the chance to perform on the basketball court," Wise said. "Between business and coaching, things can definitely get tough and demanding. But this is the commitment that I've made. And it's worth it to have an impact on their lives, building character beyond the basketball court."