While Francis Scott Key may not be considered one of the favorites to win this weekend's Carroll County wrestling tournament, the Eagles will enter the competition with no lack of confidence after a torrid finish to the regular season.
After starting the season 2-6, Key closed with six straight victories, including a 36-26 upset of defending county champion South Carroll.
"One of the things we talked about was just wanting to regain some respect within the county," said Eagles coach Bill Hyson. "We don't feel like we're being treated unfairly, but we don't want people to take us lightly, either."
Key's early season schedule included losses to county foes Winters Mill, North Carroll and Liberty - all of which were ranked in The Sun's poll at times this season.
"Part of it was the schedule, but the other part was just believing in what we were doing and just keep working through it," Hyson said. "Now, our younger kids are starting to come along."
One of them has been freshman Nolan Rinker (103 pounds), who has quietly put together a 15-5 season. Another wrestler, 135-pounder Nevin Smith, has come on strong of late after struggling early and is now 11-11.
The two have helped to fill holes in a lineup that includes several ranked competitors, including 119-pounder Reuben Gill, 152-pounder Shane Eyler and 189-pounder Luke Schuster.
Two weeks ago, all played a role as Key scored individual wins in eight of the 14 matches to upset South Carroll.
"We made some calculated moves that we hoped would put us in a position to have a chance to win," said Hyson, who flip-flopped his 119- and 125-pounders in that match and also bumped Schuster to a heavier weight class.
Now, the Eagles enter this weekend as one of the county's hottest teams.
"We tried to look at the whole-season approach, as opposed to having to do things right now," Hyson said. "We're pretty pleased with where we're at."
The Westminster girls basketball team entered this week in a most enviable position - win the final three regular-season games and claim a county title.
After Monday's game at Century, the Owls will host North Carroll on Friday and wrap up against Francis Scott Key on Tuesday.
While the chance for a county title is appealing, however, coach Jerry Georgiana hopes it winds up as nothing more than a footnote in the Owls' season.
"Our whole goal was strictly getting to the state finals and preparing for that run," Georgiana said. "This is just icing on the cake."
It's also something that appeared to be a long shot earlier this season.
Westminster began the new year with consecutive losses to Frederick County foes Urbana, Linganore and Thomas Johnson, the latter in double overtime. After looking so sharp in the early weeks of the season, particularly in a 67-61 upset of county-favorite Winters Mill, the Owls then labored to edge both North Carroll and Century.
"It was such a tough January," Georgiana said. "After you play a lot of close games, you tend to get a little stressed out, and they got a little flat."
Now, as the season winds down, Westminster appears to have picked up its game once again. In addition to the shooting of guards Brianne Sims and freshman Cassie Cooke, who together average about 27 points a game, and the solid inside play of forward Kristi Zepp, the Owls have gotten a big boost of late from some of their bench players, such as junior Megan Elfert.
"We're looking to go to the bench a lot to see how deep we can go in the playoffs," Georgiana said.
Learning to finish
When the Francis Scott Key boys basketball team ended its nine-game losing streak with an overtime win against Middletown on Friday, the Eagles also, at least for a night, broke their season-long pattern of falling apart late in games.
"We're in a lot of games, but when games get tight, it just seems that we get tight," Eagles coach Jeff Cook said.
On Feb. 7 against South Carroll, for instance, Key (3-15 entering this week) led by four points heading into the fourth quarter, only to wind up losing to the Cavaliers, 47-44. Against Frederick, a team they had defeated earlier in the season, the Eagles were tied heading into the fourth quarter, then fell apart down the stretch in a 10-point loss.
Cook can recite the same story line over and over.
"That's just the way our whole season has gone," he said. "We've had our fair share of close games."
Cook is hoping that the latest win will help start a new trend. Middletown, which had entered the night a game out of first place in the Monocacy Valley Athletic League's Piedmont Conference, had defeated Key by 15 in mid-January, and led by six at halftime on Friday.
Down the stretch, however, the Eagles, led by Brandon Eckard (20 points, 11 rebounds), dominated, outscoring the Knights, 11-4, during the fourth quarter and overtime.
"I think you've got to win a couple of those games to get that experience," Cook said.