Before the start of the season, St. Mary's girls basketball coach Carmine Blades set lofty goals for his team.
Blades talked about wanting to defeat Seton Keough, which St. Mary's had finished second to in the Catholic League the past two seasons. He mentioned winning the Catholic League title and going to the Metro Classic at the Baltimore Arena in March.
The fourth-ranked Saints (8-5) accomplished one of those goals on Friday after a 57-46 win over Seton Keough. St. Mary's had compiled a 50-10 record the past two seasons -- the most victories by an area girls basketball team -- but the Saints were 0-6 against Seton Keough in that span.
That the Saints finally gained that elusive win over the Gators this season is not in itself surprising. On paper, St. Mary's seemed to have the most talented team in the Catholic League.
Just 2 1/2 weeks ago, however, St. Mary's would have been given little chance of defeating Seton Keough.
All-Metro senior forward Laura Coakley (19.2 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game last season) tore cartilage in her right knee in a game against Arundel on Dec. 5, and she has yet to return. Without Coakley, the Saints were a much weaker team.
Or so it seemed.
On Dec. 20, St. Mary's lost its fourth straight and its record fell to 3-5 after a 54-51 loss to Notre Dame Prep. The next day, St. Mary's held a players-only team meeting before its game against then-No. 10 Broadneck.
"We decided it was time to play St. Mary's basketball, with or without me," said Coakley, who had re-injured her knee warming up before the Saints' game against Archbishop Spalding on Dec. 18.
St. Mary's defeated the Bruins, 33-29, and has not lost since.
At the time, some discounted the Saints' win over Broadneck because the Bruins were not at full strength either. Broadneck senior Andrea Macey -- the Bruins' leading scorer and rebounder, who transferred from St. Mary's during her sophomore season -- was also sidelined with a knee injury.
Nevertheless, Blades said the win over Broadneck gave his players confidence that they could win without Coakley.
St. Mary's has proved that the win over Broadneck was not a fluke. The Saints have won five straight, with four of their victories coming against teams that were ranked in The Sun's top 10. During the winning streak, St. Mary's defeated then-No. 9 North County, 48-27, and then-No. 6 Old Mill, 43-41, to win the Noel Classic.
St. Mary's teams that seemingly were more talented than this one had been eliminated in the semifinals of the Noel Classic the past two seasons.
"This is probably the most determined group of girls I've ever had," said Blades, in his 13th season at St. Mary's.
Blades said he never lost confidence in his team during its losing streak.
"I knew we had talent," Blades said. "The teams we lost to: Mount Hebron, H.D. Woodson, Notre Dame Prep and Archbishop Spalding are all very good teams. It was just a matter of instilling confidence in the girls and getting them to adjust to playing without Laura."
Said St. Mary's senior forward and four-year starter Heather Greenlee: "Without Laura, we all felt lost and without direction. We had been so used to relying on Laura, and suddenly she wasn't there and we had to start over. Now we have to rely on each other. We all have a great deal of talent, but we never had to rely on it until now."
vTC The Saints' recent success has been the result of a team effort. Junior guard Randall Goldsborough leads a balanced St. Mary's offense with an 8.5 average. Junior center Amelia Mikula scored a team-high 16 against Seton Keough. And Greenlee, freshman guard Bridget Smith, sophomore center Anne Donovan and senior forwards Jen Bonanni and Candace Blair also have contributed.
What about St. Mary's goal of playing in the Metro Classic?
To represent the Catholic League in the Metro Classic, the Saints must win the Catholic League A Division regular-season crown. With four division games remaining, St. Mary's is tied with Spalding for third place in the division with a 2-2 mark. Seton Keough and Notre Dame Prep are tied for first with 3-1 records. Another division loss would all but eliminate the Saints.
Coakley's return would give the Saints a lift when they resume play against the A Division teams in February, but Blades said he is not counting on having her back.
Coakley, who has signed early with Wake Forest, appears to feel differently.
"By the end of this month I think I'll be able to play again," said Coakley, who said she will know more about her playing status when she visits her doctor today.