UPPER MARLBORO - Ask any coach worth his or her salt, and you'll hear that they learn so much more about a team physically and mentally after a close loss than after a big win.
In that vein, Arundel girls basketball coach Lee Rogers is expecting the classroom to be wide-open and to yield some serious truths after Thursday's clash of the titans with Riverdale Baptist.
The top-ranked Wildcats dropped a 49-41 decision to the Crusaders, the team ranked ninth in the nation by USA Today and atop The Washington Post's poll. But they may have gained experience.
"We learn what we have to do in practice - what we have to work on in practice if we want to get better against elite teams in [Anne Arundel] county and the state," Rogers said. "What aren't we doing in practice that we need to do in a ballgame - that's what we have to learn.
"It's a hard lesson to learn. We always seem to bounce back. That's what it comes down to."
A contrarian's view might have held that Thursday's game didn't have to happen, in the first place. After all, Arundel (12-3 after Friday's win over Southern) had absorbed a 74-50 beating at Riverdale Baptist's hands last month at the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials tournament just up the road at Prince George's Community College in Largo.
The lesson from that first game was that the Wildcats, though deep and talented, could not match the Crusaders' combination of athleticism and discipline. So why play Riverdale Baptist a second time, given that it's not a public school and that a tough Anne Arundel County opponent, Southern, was the next night's opponent?
Well, you don't win nearly 80 percent of your games, win seven regional titles, play in five state championship games and win three of them, as Rogers has, without taking a few chances.
"If you watch what he does on the bench, you have a tremendous respect for that," said South River coach Dave Klingel, who watched Thursday's game from the stands.
"He gets his teams to play hard, and they understand what they're doing. As far as coaching, he's the benchmark of what you want to be in our county and in our region. We don't go to the state finals without beating them. We're going to have to beat them to get there, and that's not ever going to change. We look forward to that challenge, and we're not going to back down. But he's a tremendous coach with a tremendous program."
Rogers knew, absent the momentary 70-67 blip of a loss to South River on Jan. 14, that the Wildcats would be unlikely to encounter anything like the Crusaders on their way to a second straight Class 4A title. There was always the chance that the seeds sown in a win or even a competitive loss to Riverdale Baptist would bear fruit come March, when championships are won.
"We did the things that we wanted to do," Rogers said. "The only thing we didn't do was shoot well."
Indeed, the Wildcats largely succeeded in controlling the tempo, holding Riverdale Baptist under 50 points for only the second time all season. In contrast to the first meeting, when Arundel tried to run with the Crusaders, the Wildcats ran only when necessary in the second matchup, pulling back to their half-court sets while attempting to go inside.
The Wildcats' frontcourt of LaTavia Vails and Janae Butler had its hands full with Riverdale Baptist's Demauria Liles and Lindsay Harris. Crusaders point guard Pamela Stansfield, who might be the best floor leader in Maryland, did some serious damage, as well.
But the comfort Arundel can take is that, absent overconfidence or injury, it has passed its toughest test. You can't do anything about players getting hurt, and an injury to reigning All-Metro Player of the Year Alex Maguire or backcourt mate Ana Baker would seriously crimp the Wildcats' title hopes.
The loss to South River, however, combined with Thursday's game make it likely that the Wildcats won't be getting too big for their collective britches.
That, and the demands of a teacher who will push them to be better than they think they can be.
"He definitely expects a lot out of you," Maguire said of Rogers. "He lets you know what he expects, and he'll push you until he gets what he expects. His expectations are high, and we all try very hard to reach those goals."
Consider the classroom open for learning.