Western center Dana Johnson, a high school All-America, will be playing her final game for the Doves in Sunday's Metro Classic against Seton Keough. For most teams, that would prompt worries about next season's slump.
But Western isn't most teams. In addition to Johnson and senior Keya Woods, the Doves start, in coach Breezy Bishop's opinion, the three best sophomores in the state: forwards Kisha Ford and Kelly Evans and point guard Erica Dailey. And when the seniors leave, the team will be all theirs.
"I've already given them a preseason talk, a talk I save usually until after the season's over," said Bishop, whose Doves (24-1) are ranked No. 1 in the area and No. 13 in USA Today. "I want them to assume that responsibility [of leadership]."
The pressure of leading a nationally ranked team might get to other sophomores, but then again, these aren't just any sophomores. Ford, Dailey and Evans will be starting their second Metro Classic this year.
"It's a lot of responsibility, but I think all of us are up to the challenge, and I feel as though we're ready," says Dailey, a second-generation Dove. Her sister, Monica, is a Western graduate who now plays at the University of Rhode Island.
All three sophomores have become accustomed to the Western system, and it's helped them to keep their success in perspective.
"Our loss is the most memorable game we've ever played," said Ford, speaking of Western's Feb. 2 loss to Philadelphia's Cardinal O'Hara, 64-61. It was their first defeat since coming to Western, which is 51-1 the last two seasons.
"It did us good, because it brought us down," said Dailey. "It told us 'any team can beat you.' "
All three sophomores have been playing together in various leagues since the age of 12, when they played for All Saints Catholic Church in Liberty Heights. Last summer, they traveled to Philadelphia and played for the winning team at the U.S. Youth Games, followed by a trip to Shreveport, La., for the AAU Junior Olympics.
One of the girls' coaches in rec league has been Dailey's father, Michael. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be in Western, or playing basketball," says Erica, who was coached by her father and Wardell Selby this summer in AAU ball.
But no one is a bigger fan of the three sophomores than Bishop. "Kisha plays with a flair, and she can play all five positions," she said. "She's 6 feet tall and quick, and having that speed helps." Ford is averaging 15 points, six rebounds, four assists, six steals, and two blocks.
"Kelly is a quiet force," Bishop said. "She gets the job done without a lot of flair; she is a major Division I player." Evans averages 15 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
Dailey, meanwhile, averages eight points, five assists and five steals. "She doesn't score a lot of points, but that is the criteria for her because she plays the point guard position," Bishop said. "Erica and Keya are the spark plugs for the team . . . they make Dana great."
As City-Wide champion, Western takes on Catholic League champ Seton Keough (19-4) in the Metro Classic. It will be the last game for Seton Keough coach Trish Cook, who is retiring.