Craig O'Connell is your classic late bloomer.
O'Connell put off coaching a high school basketball team for well over a decade before he took the first plunge at Howard three years ago. And even then, O'Connell didn't land the job he envisioned himself taking.
"If I had the choice, I would've gone after a boys team. I had never even been to a girls basketball game before I started coaching it," said O'Connell, a 43-year-old social studies teacher at Howard andthe Howard County Sun's Coach of the Year.
"I love basketball," he added. "When I found out the job was available, I just felt it was an opportunity to coach at the varsity level. And I felt I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Timing is everything."
O'Connell has made the most of his chance. After leading the Lions to a respectable 9-11record in his first season, he nearly took Howard to the 3A Region Ichampionship game last year -- a year marked by the early-season loss of starting forward Krista Fulton to a neck injury -- before guiding the Lions to a 17-8 record this year.
Howard finished a strong third in the county behind Mount Hebron and Oakland Mills with a 10-4 record. The Lions made it to the 3A Region I championship game, before losing for the third time this season to Oakland Mills, 62-60. Howard also lost twice to Hebron, the eventual county and 2A champions.
Few winning coaches have success without big weapons, and O'Connell had quite a weapon to work with in senior guard Kristi Greer, who became the school's leading career scorer last month.
But when he opened the season by copying a college tradition with a Midnight Madness practice on Nov. 15, O'Connell remembers thinking that, even with the return of Fulton, the Lions were an inexperienced bunch. For starters, Nicole Brown, a key scorer and rebounder from the year before, moved out of the state over the summer.
"After the initial feelingof exhilaration of Midnight Madness, I remember thinking we only have four girls who played for me last year. And one of them was Krista,who really didn't play for me," O'Connell said.
Once the Lions opened the season by routing Liberty and Thomas Johnson, O'Connell sensed Howard was headed for a strong year.
Among county teams, the Lions lacked the depth of Mount Hebron and Glenelg. They still beat thefourth-place Gladiators twice, including a 58-32 rout on Feb. 1, arguably the high point of Howard's year.
The Lions got excellent seasons from Greer and a gutty comeback effort from Fulton. They became one of the league's top inside-outside combinations.
But Howard also produced in other areas. The Lions received key contributions fromother players like sophomore Camille Powell, whom O'Connell worked into the point guard role to take pressure off Greer. Powell averaged eight points, six rebounds and 4.3 assists, and emerged as the best defensive player on the team.
Junior forward Emily Petrlik was another player who sneaked up on the county and earned the team's Unsung Hero Award by averaging 5.9 points and 6.9 rebounds. And sophomore guard Sharon Ford, who assumed a starting role early in the season, went on to average 6.3 points and 4.6 rebounds, and led the team with 72offensive rebounds.
"I wish I had been doing this since I was 23 or 24. I'd be that much better at it," O'Connell said.
After threeyears, we'd say O'Connell is already ahead of the game.