Being a defending state champion can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. Just ask Joppatowne boys basketball coach Mike Bauer.
"It's good, but it won't get you much this year," he said with a laugh.
"When the crowd gets hostile, I'm gonna stand up and point to the banner and say,'Have you forgotten that already?' " Bauer and the Mariners haven't forgotten.
Joppatowne polished off its 23-1 season last March with a 71-47 rout of Western Maryland's Westmar High at Cole Field House in College Park. That came after surviving a scare from Poolesville in the semifinal. The Mariners regrouped to edge Poolesville, 50-46.
The Mariners and their coaches wouldn't trade that championship banner for anything. But they also know that trying to repeat last year's success will be an even greater challenge.
Although three starters return, only Kevin Hockaday, a 6-foot-5 center, and Kilo Mack, a 6-0 point guard, are in uniform. B. J. Barnes, a 6-1 shooting guard who excels on defense, is out at least until January as he recovers from complications after breaking his foot during the football season.
Hockaday, a four-year varsity veteran, should be the dominant big man in the county. Mack is an experienced point guard who dished out five assists a game. But they will need help to keep the Mariners near the top of the county standings -- much less in the running for another trip to the state final four.
"We have been very fortunate to have some good players in recent years," said Bauer, whose Joppatowne team has compiled a 42-4 record over the past two years.
"One thing I keep telling the kids is when you get a streak like that, whether you are as good as you were last year or not, everybody looks at you that way. To some of them, it's payback time."
The opposition will see an opening right away against the Mariners.
Graduation has brought them down to size.
Joppatowne will have to adjust its game to make up for losing twin towers Rob Jelen, 6-5, and Greg Robbins, 6-4. Both now play at Dundalk Community College.
With those two went 28 points a game and 16 rebounds. Jason Leib, a 6-4 forward who came off the bench, also graduated, taking another eight points and five rebounds.
"Last year, we had size and depth," Bauer said. "It's hard to replace the kind of talent that we lost."
The coach will try by relying a little less on the inside game and putting more emphasis on perimeter shooting. Beyond Hockaday, the Mariners have no one who can pound the ball inside. Bauer expects Hockaday to be a marked man.
"Kevin is going to have a hard time, because people are going to collapse on him," he said. "Last year, they couldn't do that because we had three big guys in there. If you collapsed on one, the others would kill you."
Hockaday said he is ready for the challenge. "There's a lot of pressure on me, because the newspapers are thinking I'm going to do the main damage, but we have a lot of other talent. I'm gonna like getting the ball out to them."
With a perimeter-oriented game, the Mariners can take the pressure off Hockaday and at the same time open up new opportunities for him. But they will need scoring from outside to pull it off. Along with Barnes and Mack, Bauer looks for contributions from returning junior guards 5-11 Damon Davies and 5-9 J. P. Lilliston as well as two newcomers, 5-11 senior Terrance Cain and 6-0 sophomore Jermaine Head.