Exhaustion and euphoria were racing to overtake Old Mill boys basketball coach Paul Bunting as he leaned against a wall outside the MeadeHigh School gymnasium Saturday night.
On the other side of the double doors, his players joined in the massive celebration that broke out after the final buzzer had made Old Mill's first Class 4A Region IV championship a reality.
As Bunting took a deep breath and listened to the ruckus, Old Mill athletic director Jim Dillon extended a hand and said, "Congratulations -- you know you made this five out of five regionals for us thiswinter?
Bunting accepted the hand shake, thanked Dillon and said,"I think it's been more difficult for us than everybody else."
And for so many reasons.
His fifth-seeded Patriots, underdogs against a team they had beaten three times during the regular season, survived two overtimes to again dispose of the second-seeded Mustangs, 81-73.
They played through nine ties and 16 lead changes. They watched shots they needed to have, and ones that could have killed their dreams, roll teasingly off the rim.
And in the end, they witnessed apopular sports axiom dissolve into the hardwood. Not only is it possible to beat a good team three times in one season, it can even be done on the fourth try.
Of course, the Patriots saw it all this winter -- injuries, poor grades, internal strife. And they survived everycrisis, just as they would survive Meade's persistent challenges.
As Bunting sought refuge in the corridor Saturday, he grouped all the tumultuous moments that have defined his career at Old Mill. And hecould smile.
"It's been seven long years," he said. "In the beginning, we had a 4-16 record. I think about all those years that have been so lousy and miserable, and I think about the triple-overtime loss last year to Broadneck (in the regional semifinals). I think about the controversy the team and I have been through. I was just happy tobe here, but I'm a lot happier that we won this."
It wasn't supposed to happen this way, not with this group of players. And not at this time, with the program still smarting from the bickering and ugly accusations that arose at the end of the regular season.
"If we goall the way back to the beginning, only having one starter returning, not many people would call that a great position to be in," Buntingsaid. "Being in the position we're in now is a credit to the entire team. I believe we played seven, eight or nine games without Erik Sheppard (grades) and Ravon Austin (injury), and that's a good chunk of our offense, and it also eliminates a lot of speed. That's why I givecredit to the whole team for hanging in there.
"The only thing that bothers me about this season whatsoever is the one tainted thing where, I guess it was some kids and maybe some parents who thought that I was making decisions based on color of skin. I hope that's behindus now."
What lies ahead is a state semifinal game against top-seeded Paint Branch at 9 p.m. Thursday at the University of Maryland College Park. The winner meets either Crossland or High Point in the finals.
And once again, Old Mill -- the fourth seed at 16-9 -- isn'texpected to last beyond the early round.
"Someone said we've got a one-in-four chance of winning, and that makes sense, but I'd have to say we're a decided underdog," Bunting said. "We're just going to go in there, play hard, try to do the things that we feel we do best and just enjoy the situation."
And maybe surprise a few people along the way. It's happened before.