As the competition grows tougher for McDonogh's 14-0 girls basketball team, the biggest challenge for the young Eagles may be learning how to think like front-runners.
Last season, first-year coach Tom Gizzi had the Eagles climbing steadily through the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference, finishing 19-6 before falling to eventual champion St. Frances in the tournament semifinals.
Now, the No. 3 Eagles are the only unbeaten A Conference team at 10-0.
Early in the season, they handily beat No. 6 St. Frances and No. 11 Towson Catholic, but in the past week they have struggled to finish off unranked Bryn Mawr and Mercy.
"With our young team, being 14-0, these girls really need to learn how to play and compete from not being the underdog anymore," said Gizzi, who starts a freshman, a sophomore and three juniors.
"It's probably easier to play as the underdog, because you're trying to scrap for something you want. Now that we have something that a lot of other teams want, although it's just in-season wins, we have to learn to defend that a little bit better. We have to realize we're going to get a team's best effort every time we play them."
Mercy drove that point home Monday night, when the Magic, a 3-10 team that is 2-6 in the A Conference, pushed McDonogh into overtime before the Eagles escaped with a 64-60 victory.
"Every team comes out after us," said junior co-captain Anastasia Wynn. "They're going to play their A game, so we just have to come out and play like a team and find a way to get through the slumps and play through it as a team."
The Eagles showed that teamwork against Mercy when their top player, 5-foot-10 sophomore guard Brittany Mallory, fouled out on the final play in regulation. The Eagles still managed to dominate in overtime, thanks to big plays from Wynn, freshman guard Becky Cox and 6-1 junior forward Sam Frost.
Mercy coach Mary Ella Marion said the Eagles have the inside-outside combination in Mallory (22.0 points per game), Wynn (11.5), Cox (10.3) and Frost (9.1 points and 7.6 rebounds) to keep them on the winning track.
"You can't necessarily do one particular defense against them. You really need to switch it up and make them think a little bit," said Marion.
Today, the Eagles hit the most competitive stretch of their schedule. At the halfway point of the IAAM season, the Eagles are about to face five ranked teams in their next six games, starting with tonight's 5:30 tip-off at No. 14 Roland Park.
The Eagles believe they can win the A Conference title - something Wynn said they did not believe a year ago.
"It's a 100 percent attitude change," said Wynn.
"When Gizzi came here last year at our first meeting he told us we were going to win the championship and we all looked at him like, 'Gizzi, you're crazy. There's no way,' but now when he says that to us, we believe it and we know we can do it. We just have to play together."