The bad memories are still fresh in the minds of the Atholton Raiders.
They recall how Atholton, one of the county's more distinguished girls basketball programs in the 1980s, fell apart last year. They remember a few early season defeats snowballing into an extended losing streak.
When the season ended with teammates bickering and pointing fingers, the Raiders limped home with a 1-13 record against the county (6-16 overall), their worst performance under Coach Graydon Webster..5l
"We weren't motivated. We stopped working. We started arguing witheach other. Some days, I hated coming to practice," said Atholton senior forward Juanita Thompson.
"Last year, teams knew they were going to beat Atholton," she said. "Just mark a one in the loss column (for Atholton)."
No one is laughing at the Raiders anymore. New faces, new attitudes, a renewed sense of pride and a much better brand of basketball have pulled Atholton (2-4, 7-7) out of the league's cellar and back to respectability.
In many ways, this year's Raiders are the flip side to last year's edition.
The Raiders of a year ago handled the ball like a hot potato, averaging 32 turnovers a game. This year's team features skilled ballhandlers who have shaved nearly10 turnovers a game from that average.
The Raiders' ineptitude last year was reflected in their 29 percent shooting, which made them the weakest offensive team in the league. This year's team is hitting 37 percent of its shots and is averaging a solid 55.3 points a game.
Last year's group was too slow to sustain a strong man-to-man defense. This year's team is quicker, better-conditioned and is pressuring offenses like the Atholton teams of old.
The 1-13 Raiders turnedto jelly in tight games and were blown out early more often than anyother Webster-coached team. This year's team refuses to die.
A perfect example was Friday's game against Glenelg, the county's second-place team and one of the better squads in the Baltimore area.
TheRaiders had lost junior Allison Valentino, their three-year point guard and top scorer, to a severe case of bronchitis. They also had lost another guard, Vanessa Clack, to a sprained wrist, thanks to a collision in practice with Thompson a day earlier. Thompson still was feeling the effects of the crash with a sore knee and swollen jaw at game time.
And yet, the Raiders, behind strong performances by Thompson (14 points), forward Dana McGraw (17 points, 14 rebounds) and point guard Carla Galang (10 points) -- back from a knee injury in the fall -- still took a seven-point halftime lead before bowing, 55-51.
"I wasn't at a hundred percent, but I was trying to give 110 percent," said Thompson, whose spirit apparently rubbed off on her teammates.
McGraw played the best game of her career, Webster said. Galang,who figures to see increased playing time this month, filled in beautifully. And the Raiders pulled together in a way that set them apartfrom last year.
"It was tough trying to find anything positive (about last year)," said Webster, in his ninth season.
"I used to wonder how poorly we would play tonight. I sat on the bench with a feeling of total alienation.
"The parents were upset, the school was upset. The kids were upset with me, I was upset with them," Webster said. "We had too many individuals saying 'I'm going to do what I want.'
"This year, they are totally involved in the team concept. And they're not waiting for things to happen. Last year, I couldn't find afloor leader. This year, I've got three or four."
Valentino is a symbol of the Raiders' turnaround. As a freshman, her job mostly was to get the ball to Sherri Orlosky, who was winding up a terrific, four-year career and would head to Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship. Last year, Valentino stayed in that unselfish mind-set and passed up too many shots, averaging just nine points a game.
Valentino heeded Webster's advice in the off-season, working hard on perfecting her outside shot and adopting a scorer's mentality. Through 14 games, she led the Raiders in scoring (15.3), shooting (45 percent) and minutes (30), while dishing out three assists per game.
"We weren't team-oriented last year. He (Webster) said he wasn't going to put up with that this year, and he's working us a lot harder," Valentino said.
"We're closer this year. We do more things together off the court. And we're looking for each other more on the court.
"We didn't want to be the worst in the county again. We've put last year behind us."