Yesterday's practice looked much the same as last year's session at this time. The early shooting drills hadn't changed, and the laughterand playful exchanges still remained.
But make no mistake, the circumstances are different this time around.
No longer is the Old Mill girls basketball team being viewed as acollection of raw talent that should wilt under the heat of state playoff competition. The Patriots enter today's tournament as the No. 1seed, the defending Class 4A state champions, and the top-ranked team in the metro area.
And they're expected to handle fourth-seeded Gaithersburg of Montgomery County in their 5 p.m. semifinal game at Catonsville Community College. Second-seeded Bowie meets third-seeded Laurel in the earlier semifinal. The winners will play 3 p.m. Saturday for the state championship.
"I think you always like to go in asan underdog, but you don't worry about it," said Old Mill coach Pat Chance. "It's how we view the other team, and we don't view the otherteam as an underdog. Just because they're the fourth seed -- on the state level, that doesn't mean diddly-squat."
"I think we have a little bit of pressure on us, being picked No. 1," said junior guard Christine Baer, second on the team in scoring at 7.2 points a game. "We have to go in there with a lot of intensity and play our best. The pressure's there, but if we work together and keep our heads in the game, we should have no problem."
"This year, everyone thinks we'resupposed to win," said senior forward Cindy Davenport, "but we know that if we don't play the way we can, someone can knock us off."
Old Mill (23-1) has been knocking teams around most of the season, winning all but two games by double digits. They've won 18 straight and haven't been seriously tested since a 51-47 victory over Broadneck two months ago.
"The advantage that Gaithersburg is going to have over us is their schedule. They've played tougher games going down the stretch, and we haven't," Chance said.
Like Old Mill, the Trojans (20-5) didn't rely on one or two girls to carry them through the season. Four players average at least nine points a game, led by senior guard Noell White at 12.1. Junior center Adrienne Beard, Gaithersburg's tallest player at 6 feet, averages 11.2 points.
Sophomore guard/forward Jenny Higgins, averaging just over nine points a game, scored15 to lead the Trojans past Springbrook, 44-42, in the regional finals.
Both teams have stingy defenses, with Old Mill allowing 33.4 points a game, compared to just under 43 for Gaithersburg. And both teams only start one senior -- White for Gaithersburg and Davenport forOld Mill.
But one difference has the Trojans second-year coach Tim Kowalchick a little worried.
"They're back again; they know whatit's like. This is the farthest our school has gotten in about 11 years," he said.
"It might be an advantage early in the game, but ifwe adjust to where we are quickly enough, maybe their experience won't be that much of a problem."
Chance largely dismisses the experience factor. Last year, she heard talk of how her team would suffer from its first exposure to the spacious gymnasium at Catonsville and the accompanying pressure.
"We went up as sophomores and it didn't seem to bother us at all," said Chance, whose roster contains two seniors, seven juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen. "It depends on the personality of your kids. Not knowing his kids, I wouldn't know, but it seems to me they played in the clutch against Springbrook after losing to them twice (during the regular season). That's an indication those kids are pretty heady."
Kowalchick said his team will start out in a man-to-man defense "and see how well we match up. They're a little bigger than we are, so we'll play it by ear."
Chance has worked more intently with her players on the man-to-man since Broadneck used it in their regular-season meeting. Mount Hebron also had success with the defense, handing Old Mill its only loss, 60-41, in December.
"I felt we might be seeing more and more of it, so we've been working on it every night. We'll just have to see how we go with it," Chance said.
She'll also see if the Trojans can handle the zone trap that has given opposing teams fits most of the season, and ifher players can handle the high expectations that go with being a defending state champion and not get caught looking beyond the Trojans.
"I know I'm planning on taking them seriously," Chance said, "andI've stressed the same thing to these kids. If they don't, then shame on them."
"I've been working hard all year for this," Davenport said, "and I want to win it more than anything."