A feeling of deja vu came over Craig O'Connell.
Outside, his tennis team practiced in spring-like weather. Inside Howard High, O'Connell was having trouble letting go of winter, especially another great,girls basketball season that had turned sour.
"I remember feeling this way last year," said O'Connell on Thursday, still smarting from his team's 66-52 defeat the night before at Linganore (Frederick County) in the Class 3A Region III semifinals.
"It's the feeling that I have to go out on the tennis court a lot earlier than I had planned," he added. "I don't want to go outside yet."
And yet, the more he reviewed the Lions' season, the more O'Connell's spirits brightened.
Howard finished second in a strong county with an 11-3 record and wound up 19-5 overall, the best in O'Connell's four seasons as coach. Four losses, two each against Mount Hebronand Linganore, came against teams expected to win state titles next weekend at Catonsville Community College. O'Connell also fooled the skeptics who thought the Lions would struggle without Kristi Greer, who graduated last year after leading the county in scoring.
O'Connell's first two years were rebuilding seasons. The last two have been full of high expectations mostly fulfilled.
Last year, Howard cameon strong late in the season and made it to the regional finals, where they lost a 62-60 heart-breaker to Oakland Mills. This year, the Lions came together as a county powerhouse early, faltered late in theregular season by losing to Mount Hebron -- a demoralizing, 72-29 rout two weeks ago -- and Hammond, then finding themselves stuck in perhaps the state's toughest girls basketball playoff region.
What other region would land an 18-4 team as low as a fourth seed?
"I hate this region," said O'Connell. "I can't stand looking at the other teams in our county (Hebron and Hammond) that get to play the Pikesvilles and the Loch Ravens (weaker Baltimore County schools)."
After beating fifth-seeded Randallstown -- another Baltimore County school -- easily in the first round of the regionals, Howard had to travel to top-seeded, undefeated Linganore. The Lions had dropped a 15-point decision to Linganore in December, but this time O'Connell thought things would be different.
They started that way, as Howard, despitelosing point guard Camille Powell for most of the first half to foultrouble, took a 26-24 halftime lead. But the Lions began to tire in the second half, while Linganore forward Pam Anderson was just getting warmed up. She ended up scoring a game-high 34 points, including 12at the free-throw line.
The game left a bad taste in O'Connell's mouth for several reasons. Linganore paraded to the foul line 38 times, making 20 shots. Howard, meanwhile, took only eight foul shots, making four, and the Lions were never in a bonus situation. O'Connell also watched in horror as three-point baskets by Krista Fulton and Emily Petrlik were nullified by questionable traveling violations. Fulton, Powell and guard Sharon Ford eventually fouled out.
"We couldn't stop Anderson inside. It just seemed like every time we touched her, they (the officials) blew a whistle. I didn't realize the discrepancy (in foul calls) until I watched the tape," O'Connell said. "But I was real impressed with them (Linganore). Every defense we came up with, they had the cure. And we got tired at the end."
For most of the year, the Lions relied mainly on five starters and one substitute,Emily Moore. But fatigue set in as the regular season wound down. The Hebron rout dealt the Lions a devastating emotional blow. A week later, Howard tired badly in the fourth quarter of a 55-47 loss at Hammond.
"The Hebron (72-29) game started the slide," said Fulton. "Wereally hit a high at the beginning of the second round (of the county schedule) when we beat Glenelg (a 61-37 rout). But it's a long season, and since we mostly went with five or six players, everyone started to get tired. We had high hopes, but we surpassed our expectations."
O'Connell thought about next year. Powell and Ford will form what should be an excellent, senior backcourt. Guard/forward Mona Jackson will be a sophomore and still probably the county's most gifted athlete.
He will need to rebuild his frontcourt, with Petrlik and Fulton graduating. For now, O'Connell will have to be content with getting only close to a state tournament again.
"I have to be philosophical about this year," he said. "The fact that we went 19-5 is remarkable. We had a great year. I have to look at these girls, appreciatehow they played for me, and be thankful for it."