The seeds for St. Mary's run to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference championship this season were planted during summer workouts in 2005.
Joshua Morgan-Green and Joshua Hartman, transfers from Bowie and Archbishop Spalding, respectively, were paired as training partners and immediately bonded over a shared love of the game.
The following summer, Nicholas Croce joined the duo for drills and quickly earned his teammates' respect.
The synergy among the three guards helped the Saints go from mediocrity to their first championship since 2003.
"They complement each other very well, and they all share the same skill set," St. Mary's coach Brian Konik said. "Whoever gets the ball first is capable of pushing the ball up the court to initiate the offense, and they can all shoot the three."
Hartman, a senior, led the MIAA in three-point shooting; Morgan-Green, a junior, led the conference and Anne Arundel County in scoring; and Croce, a sophomore, was the MIAA leader in assists and steals.
Although similar in talent, each player has his own style.
Hartman, 5 feet 8, is intense and fiery on the court. An accurate shooter with a range that extends beyond 25 feet, he regularly pulls up from far behind the three-point line in games.
"Josh Hartman is our hardest worker and leader as far as his work ethic," Konik said. "Defensively, he's very aggressive and always diving on the floor. As a shooter, he has no conscience, and he hit at least four three-pointers in each of our playoff games."
Morgan-Green, 5-11, plays with a relaxed confidence. While his 20.8-scoring average might suggest that he takes an abundance of shots, he doesn't exert himself at the expense of the team.
"He's had games where he's scored 41, 33 and 30 points for us, but he plays within the flow of the game," Konik said. "When he's on and hitting his shots, we feed him the ball. He's hit four three-pointers in one quarter this year. He's at his best when he's streaking down the court where he can catch a pass and power the ball into the basket."
Croce, 5-10, might be the most complete player of the three. The Saints' best defender, he regularly guards the opponent's top scorer. Steady on offense, he handles the press like a savvy veteran while consistently putting up double-digit games.
"Nick rarely makes mistakes and plays the most minutes because there's never a reason to take him out," Konik said. "He's cool under pressure, very creative with his dribbling and never takes a bad shot or forces a flashy pass."
When Morgan-Green and Hartman first met in 2005, they spent hours practicing the shooting and layup drills.
"A lot of times it was just the two of us in the gym, shooting, lifting weights and doing skill work at 6 a.m.," Hartman said.
"I'd never lifted weights before, and Josh was teaching me how to lift," Morgan-Green said. "We talked that summer about what we wanted to accomplish, shared our different basketball experiences and became great friends."
Last year, Hartman and Morgan-Green led the Saints to 14 victories, a drastic improvement for a program that was two seasons removed from a four-win season.
But both players were disappointed.
"We felt like we should have done better than finishing 14-13," Hartman said. "We're both very competitive, and even though we understood that we were a young team, we hate losing."
When Croce came aboard the following year, a heightened sense of anticipation soon replaced the dissatisfaction with the previous season.
"Nick was really young but he'd been around the game a long time," Hartman said. "He had a role player's mentality, but you could tell that he was a superstar."
Morgan-Green and Hartman called Croce frequently, inviting him to hang out, go to the movies and play in pick-up games. The three guards talked strategy, discerning ways to attack defenses in certain game situations.
"Adding Nick really helped us because Josh Hartman is at his best when he's set, while Josh Morgan-Green is most effective running the floor," Konik said. "They both had to give up the ball and trust that they'd get it back, and they trusted Nick."
In their first game of the season, the Saints upset rival Archbishop Spalding, 81-76. Morgan-Green scored 33 points, connecting on four of six three-point attempts, to go along with four rebounds, five assists, three blocks and eight steals.
Hartman added 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and five steals, while Croce contributed 14 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals in his varsity debut.
"That first game set the tone for our season," Croce said. "Our goal from Day One was to win a championship and we had that in mind during every game we played."