The North Carroll girls basketball team isn't exactly finishing its season like champions.
The team's top two scorers, center Michele Jeffery and point guard Ashlee Douglas, have taken turns being in slumps; the offense has looked ragged at times; and the 12th-ranked Panthers (16-5) are only 3-3 in their last six games.
It has left coach Greg Knill blaming himself as he attempts to fix the struggling Carroll County champions.
"I got away from what had been successful for North Carroll girls basketball," said Knill moments after the Panthers had wrapped up their second straight county championship with a 55-26 victory over South Carroll last Thursday night. "I was relying too much on two kids [Jeffery and Douglas]. I was putting too much on them instead of spreading it around like we have in past years."
Knill, in his third year as varsity coach, has always believed in going 11 deep in almost every game.
That philosophy has enabled Knill to post a 45-23 record in three seasons.
But when Jeffery and Douglas carried the Panthers to a 7-0 start, it was tempting to sit back and watch them work their magic. The two mini-slumps have brought Knill back to his original blueprint.
He has been giving Douglas and Jeffery long breathers, and he has often used his entire second team for the first three to four minutes of the fourth quarter.
Douglas was even out of the game for two of the final three minutes against Liberty last week.
Those kind of moves have been perplexing to casual observers, but Knill plans on sticking with his approach for winning basketball games.
"I believe in everybody getting a chance so that when they're needed in a tight situation, they have the confidence to do the job," said the coach.
"These are young ladies experiencing the frustrations of life more than just basketball. They're going to get down on themselves at times and go through hard times. My job is to help them through those times and hopefully make them better people when they leave here. Along the way I hope they have fun and we win a lot of basketball games."
Knill believes his Panthers are a more complete team now than they were at the start of the season.
He likes the way sophomore Teresa Mays came off the bench against Liberty last week and scored four key points. He smiled when another sophomore, Jill Ballard, knocked down eight points against Westminster last Tuesday in a 71-59 win. And he gets satisfaction out of seeing a third sophomore, Cori Bradford, come in and do a decent job in place of Douglas at point guard.
And there have been satisfying performances in relief roles by juniors Laura Burkhouse, Casey Rhoten and Jenny Renner.
Also, junior starter Jenny Baker has come on quickly with her offensive production.
But Knill leaves no doubt about the special place his four senior starters -- Douglas, Jeffery, Francine Hewes and Kara Tedder -- hold on the team, especially Douglas.
His respect for Douglas made it even harder for him to take her out of games for long stretches at a time.
"Ashlee has gotten me where I am," said Knill. "If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here talking about all these wins. I've been coaching her since the ninth grade. She was the first player I brought up from the JV to the varsity during the season in my first year. I'm not going to turn my back on Ashlee."
Through it all, Douglas and Jeffery have tried hard to accept their reduced roles. Neither player likes to come out of games but neither has complained loudly.
"I don't like to sit," said Jeffery, who is averaging 17 points and 12.5 rebounds to lead the team in both categories. "I've never felt any pressure to do too much. I just go out and play. I think our slumps were caused by the fact we couldn't get crucial baskets to fall and we were playing a lot on the road."
At home, Jeffery said the fans help the Panthers through rough times. They are 10-1 at home and 6-4 on the road.
"I think at the start of the season we were just getting by in some games," said Jeffery. "Now we're finishing teams off better [three straight wins for 6-0 county record]."