A December loss to Old Mill showed promise; a win over Bowie indicated potential.
And Friday's 54-50 victory over Severna Park firmly entrenched the Arundel girls basketball team as a force in the county.
Who could have known? Certainly not Wildcats coach Lee Rogers, atleast not this soon.
"My projection was we'd start winning consistently when the girls were seniors, which would have been the 1991-1992 season, but we turned around quicker than I thought," said Rogers,who took over the program last winter after five years as boys coach.
Arundel hasn't qualified for the regional playoffs since March 1987, when Baltimore County champion Woodlawn prevailed, 72-54, in thequarterfinals. The Wildcats' last winning record came three years before that, when they went 13-8.
And there's more. Arundel was a combined 7-37 in Debbie Ahalt's final two seasons as coach before Rogers' arrival, and 6-16 last year.
How does one explain the sudden, shocking turnaround that finds the Wildcats with an 11-4 record and inthe upper echelon of the Region IV standings? Rogers has a couple oftheories.
"Part of the reason is a lot of the kids who returned put in a lot of time in the summer going to camps," he said. "It's paid off for them. They realize the extra work has helped."
So, too, did the arrival of Donna Parker from Middle Township High in New Jersey. The 5-foot-9 senior leads the team in scoring, rebounding, blocksand steals, and is second to sophomore guard Alina Smith in assists.
Parker, one of only two seniors on the team, was named co-captainand starting point guard at the beginning of the season, and Arundelsoon became a winner.
"She sped up the (rebuilding) process," Rogers said. "She opened up the eyes of the rest of the girls, so they saw how good they could be."
Parker matched her scoring average with 11 points in last week's triumph over Severna Park. She was one of four Wildcats in double figures.
"These girls complement each other," Rogers said. "When you have a winning ballclub, you have good chemistry, not one dominating player. This is a team-oriented offense."
The same is true of the Wildcats' defense, which primarily uses amatchup zone but occasionally changes to man-to-man "when our backs are against the wall," Rogers said.
"The girls have done a good job when they've had to do that," he said of the switch. "Our zone has man-to-man principles, so they can adjust. They're doing a real good job, keeping teams at bay."
Once-beaten Old Mill was held to two points in the second quarter of a Dec. 21 game, but Arundel failed in its upset bid, 51-35.
"Even though we lost, I saw promise," Rogerssaid. "Just looking at the first two quarters, I knew we could be a good club. We lost it in the fourth because of a lack of maturity andexperience, but we used that game to get better. We lost, but we understood why we lost. That carried over to the Christmas tournament."
Narrow victories over Bowie and Northeast -- by a combined six points -- in the Arundel Holiday Invitational gave the Wildcats both thetournament championship and additional confidence.
"Bowie wanted to make us run, but we didn't. We chose to do what we wanted, and that's why we won," Rogers said, looking back on the 62-60 overtime win."From there, we continued to get better."
Parker had 22 points against Bowie, and Smith added 18.
"When we beat Bowie in the tournament, I realized we were pretty good," Parker said.
That became more apparent in the finals, when Arundel defeated Northeast, 55-51, behind 14 points and 17 rebounds from senior center Tiffany Clayton. The Eagles were state semifinalists a year ago and favorites to win theholiday event.
The past two weeks have brought victories over Southern and Severna Park -- concrete evidence that the Wildcats are contenders rather than pretenders.
"I knew they were improving last year and if they got some help, they'd be right there," Old Mill coachPat Chance said.
Arundel is fourth in the Region IV standings with a 5.15 average, trailing Old Mill (7.6), North County (6.7) and Broadneck (5.6) but ahead of Severna Park (4.9) and LaPlata (4.4). The top six teams qualify for the playoffs.
Shortly before the start oflast Friday's game, Rogers said, "I know Severna Park is a good clubwith a good reputation. We'd like to get into that class, and if we play well, win or lose, we could use that as stepping stone to get into that class."
Afterward, the jubilant Wildcats exploded in celebration, filling their locker room with a championship air not felt inquite some time.
"We were all psyched before the game," said junior co-captain Mary Pat Fannon, who scored 12 points, one less than leader Michelle Harrison. "We knew what we had to do, and we went out and did it.
"We've been taking it one game at a time, but we knew whenthe big names came up, like Old Mill and Severna Park, that we had to prove ourselves," she said.
The Falcons were behind by two at halftime, 27-25, but only scored seven points in the third quarter and never fully recovered.
"We've been in close situations before and we knew we could handle it," said Smith, last year's leading scorer, who had 10 points Friday.
It's all enough to make the recent past seem light years away.
"Everything has come together now," Fannon said. "All the hard work is paying off in us being successful."