Dan Hart, a confident master of motivation, sounds baffled at his lacrosse squad's 3-7 record.
Usually, the Annapolis coach has an unflinching, deep, booming voice.
But that voice wavers ever so slightly when addressing what had been a nightmarish season before Friday night's 8-4 win over visiting Chesapeake (6-5).
"Never in my wildest dreams did I expect something like this to happen," said Hart, who entered the season with threestraight playoff appearances, a three-year, 31-12 career record and high hopes of "hitting for the cycle."
"In 1989, we went to the state quarterfinals. In 1990, we went all the way to the finals and lost. In 1991, we went to the semis and lost to North County," said Hartduring the preseason. "So this year, we want to knock it out of the ballpark by winning the whole thing."
But it is Annapolis that hasbeen uncharacteristically knocked for a loop thus far, as teams the Panthers routinely routed in the past -- Broadneck, Severna Park, Arundel, South River and Northeast -- have exacted their revenge with victories.
"We had beaten Broadneck and Severna Park handily over the last two years, now they're whipping on us," said Hart. "That's what made the Chesapeake game so scary. We had beaten them like 15-0 and13-4 the last two times."
Although 13 players graduated from lastyear's 11-4 squad, Hart said during the preseason, "At Annapolis we don't rebuild, we reload." Back was senior, first-team All-County attackman Dan Flynn, last year's top scorer among the county's public school players with 37 goals and 14 assists.
Flynn would look for support from senior Jon Songey (25 goals, 10 assists), junior Mike Fraoli (11, four), and defenders Brendan Bellotte, Jim Reed, Craig Harrison and Jack Copus.
Unfortunately, the support has been inconsistent.
"We weren't getting, and still aren't getting, the leadership that we need," said Hart. "We just were never able to put it together for four quarters."
The Panthers limped out of the starting gate, thanks primarily to injuries to Flynn (ankle) and Songey (knee), and,in part, inexperience of a few underclassmen and the lack of overallteam speed.
Midfielder Jak Karl (16 goals, 10 assists) is the Panthers' scoring leader, while Songey (11, three) and Flynn (nine, seven) continue to struggle. Sophomore midfielder Taylor Boone (nine, eight) is the fourth-leading contributor in a sputtering offense.
"Wewere playing more as individuals and less as a team," said Karl, whohad three goals and two assists against Chesapeake. "I'm not surprised that I've been the leading scorer, but I think (the Chesapeake game) shows that there are others, and this game has us going in the right direction."
Instead of the "4-1 or 3-2" record Hart had hoped for over the Panthers' first five games, the club went 2-3. And for the first time in Hart's four-year tenure, his Panthers are in peril ofmissing the Class 4A-3A state playoffs.
They dropped the season-opener, 7-3, to an improved Broadneck squad that as of Friday had a 7-2 record, was unbeaten against county foes and ranked No. 12 in the Baltimore Sun poll. Then the Panthers downed North County, 7-5, but subsequently were beaten by Arundel, 9-6, and hammered, 17-8, by No. 13Severna Park.
The Panthers appeared to have righted themselves with a 7-4 victory over previously unbeaten Southern, but suffered an embarrassing 8-6 loss to Northeast in the next game. It was the Eagles' first victory over the Panthers in school history.
"We had a 6-1lead over them, but it was really strange because the confidence level wasn't there in our team," said Hart. "It's like we knew we were going to fold, and we did."
It was a rare occurrence in an Annapolis program that had established a proud tradition with three state titles under Coach Al Laramore in the 1980s. The scene was one that Northeast coach Kevin Buckley never had witnessed in an Annapolis program, but one he can relate to.
"I know the feeling of hitting the threshold and not getting over the top, praying for a break and hoping that the season doesn't end before you can correct the mistakes you'vemade," said Buckley, whose Eagles were 3-9 last season after four 7-7 campaigns.
"When we beat Annapolis, people were coming up and saying 'Congratulations, you won, but Annapolis must be down this year,' but I don't think so. If they don't make the playoffs, they'll be better than a lot of teams that do."
Hart said, "So far, our kids haven't quit, but we have to scratch and claw for everything we can get. "We'll see what our true character is in our last (four) games."