The county's high school girls basketball standings have gradually separated into three divisions. While Mount Hebron, Oakland Mills, Howard and Glenelg are completing successful regular seasons and preparing for this week's regional playoffs, what's been happening with the league's other foursome?
Let's take it from the top:
* The celebration at Hammond continues. The Golden Bears, who looked like the county's most-improved team in December, have stayed that course by finishing a respectable 5-9 against the county. The Bearswound up the regular season with an 11-11 record, their first non-losing season in four years under coach Joe Russo. What's more, Hammondis headed to the Class 2A Region II playoffs for the first time in four years. The Bears could be seeded fourth, which would give them home court advantage in the first round.
"It's a little different feeling around here," said Russo, recalling last season's 1-21 finish. "We're anxious to get to the playoffs."
Hammond has made the playoffs with the same ingredients that got the Bears off to a 5-1 start -- senior forward Emily Minah and the freshmen tandem of point guard Kacey Williams and forward Sonia Keiner.
Williams has been exceptional. She's averaging 9.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 4.3 steals and is shooting 50.4 percent from the floor. If she's not careful, she could find herself on an All-County team. Keiner has also complemented Minah (11.3 points on 60 percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds) with strong low-post play (10.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 8.8 rebounds).
The bad news is Hammond is stuck in the same region as top-seeded Mount Hebron. The good news is Williams, Keiner and Kristen Moraz (6.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists) are back next year, when the Bears should continue climbing in the league standings.
* Centennial's improvement hasn't been as dramatic as Hammond's, but the Eagles -- who barely missed making the Class 3A Region I playoffs, have made strides under fifth-year coach Larry Kinsey.
Centennial wound up 5-9 in the county, 8-13 overall. On the surface, that represents merely two more victories than last year. But the Eagles, who lostroutinely by 20 points after Kinsey decided to go with a youth movement in mid-season last year, have become much more competitive.
The Eagles have lost twice to Glenelg by a combined nine points. They hung with Howard well into the fourth quarter last week before losing by 11. They even pestered Hebron for three quarters last month beforelosing by 22.
"Right now, my team doesn't have the ability to turn it up a notch. That will come," Kinsey said. "This, without question, has been the most enjoyable team I've ever been around."
The Eagles will look next year to the nucleus of 6-foot sophomore forward Shannon Saltzmann (8.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.9 blocked shots), sophomore point guard Kelly Butler (6 points, 3.2 assists, 4.1 steals) andjunior guard Becky Joeckel (9.1 points, 5 steals, 5.3 rebounds). If those three continue developing, and the Eagles improve significantlyon the 32 percent shooting that kept their offense stuck in the 45-point range, Centennial will be a contender again.
* Atholton and Wilde Lake have been two of the more surprising teams -- for the wrongreasons. They've nose-dived together to the bottom of the county standings.
The Raiders figured to dip with the graduation of Player of the Year Sherri Orlosky. But eighth-year coach Graydon Webster didn't expect to plummet to a 7-15 record.
The reasons are threefold. Atholton has shot 29 percent from the floor. The Raiders have been without guard Vanessa Clack (broken wrist) for a month. And they've sent opponents to the free-throw line three times as often as they've gone.
In a game against Howard, for instance, the Lions took 38 foulshots to Atholton's six. Glenelg took 38 to Atholton's 12 another time. And against Oakland Mills, the Scorpions took 28 freebies to the Raiders' two.
To make matters more painful, Atholton lost eight games by six points or less.
The Raiders will miss the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Sophomore point guard Allison Valentino (9.6 points, 3.2 assists) and junior forward Juanita Thompson (8.1 rebounds, 3.8 steals) are the key returnees.
At Wilde Lake, theWildecats hoped to improve on last year's 11-11 record that got themto the regional playoffs. Instead, they lost 15 of their last 16 games. Thursday's 30-27 victory over Atholton in the regular-season finale was the Wildecats' first win against the county. Wilde Lake wound up with a 3-18 record under third-year coach Dave Nesbitt.
The Wildecats' problems came down to trying to win with a one-man team -- junior guard Renita Young. She averaged 15 points and 2.5 steals, but accounted for nearly 50 percent of Wilde Lake's offense. The Wildecatsaveraged just 31 points, while giving up 44.
"Every game we've played two good quarters, one halfway-decent quarter, and we're out of the game in the other quarter," said Nesbitt. "You're not going to win that way. It's the lament of every coach. Where are you when I needyou?"
Young returns next year and her supporting cast should be better. Freshman guard Kim Driessen improved over the last month, as did sophomore forward Tracy Stefan, who averaged 8.5 rebounds over thelast month.