Can't win for losing

High schools: The Overlea Falcons have lost 35 straight games in girls basketball, 16 in a row this season, but that hasn't stopped them from trying.

February 10, 1999|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN STAFF

After converting consecutive steals into layups, Overlea High School point guard April Johnson strutted downcourt and gave an emphatic high-five to Erica Bentley, screaming out: "This is how you play basketball, baby."

It didn't matter that the Falcons trailed Dulaney by 26 points at the time. Or that they would eventually extend the area's worst girls basketball losing streak to 35 games.

At Overlea, it's those little flashes of glory that count the most.

Winless in 16 games this season, Overlea has been outscored 1,013-295, getting pounded by an average margin of 45 points per game. In 13 games, Falcons opponents have totaled more points at halftime than Overlea would score the entire game.

Yet the Falcons have become a portrait of endurance and determination rather than discouragement. And the most intriguing question isn't why Overlea always loses, but why the players haven't quit.

"It's just about loving to play basketball -- it has to be," Bentley said. "I don't think about it as losing because we do something a lot of people don't do. We're representing our school and we're doing it the best that we can.

"It's not about winning and losing all the time, although winning would be nice for a change."

Since 1992, Overlea has produced only 15 wins while making six coaching changes. Combine that lack of stability with a dwindling talent pool and it's not shocking that the Falcons haven't won since Dec. 15, 1997, when they beat

Kenwood by four points on the way to a 1-20 season.

Of the 15 girls who tried out in November, only eight show up on a regular basis. Half of that group put on a basketball uniform for the first time in their lives.

Now imagine losing 11 of your games by 45 or more points, going to school where classmates chastise you and finishing up the day by hearing opposing teams make fun of you. It's not uncommon to witness an opposing player go up to an Overlea player and say something like, "Do you think you'll score 20 on us today?"

"Nobody really sticks up for us, to tell you the truth," said senior center Shan'nel McConnell.

"What I think holds them back isn't as much losing but the attitude of the other teams," said second-year Overlea coach John Ferguson, a 27-year-old graduate of Loyola College. "I've heard the water-cooler talk at school and I've heard it from other teams. The scores the way they are, it happens."

So with three games left, Overlea attempts to cope with the losses by setting minor goals mixed with some light-hearted moments. And Ferguson helps his players along at times, too.

For instance, Ferguson wanted to stress ball control one practice and promised his players that they could go to the concession stand if they could successfully pass the ball around six times.

"I cracked everyone up when I said, `Come on, just one more time, I need a hot dog,' " Bentley said laughingly.

But the season has been far from being a treat. At times, Overlea has shown anger over its futility with some hard fouls, which has prompted some one-on-one conferences with principal James Thanner.

Then there are the other mistakes.

Overlea averages nearly a turnover a minute. It has stretches of more air balls than baskets. And its 30 percent team foul shooting only compounds the deficits.

It's led several Falcons to ignore the scoreboard.

"After the first couple of games, I stopped looking at it," McConnell said. "There's just no point. It's just the score. I don't even remember the scores."

In fact, Overlea has had a halftime lead only once this season. The Falcons led Patapsco, 17-13, on Dec. 18, but stumbled in the second half to lose by 12 points, their lowest margin of defeat during the skid.

"I see a bunch of girls who are undermanned," Thanner said. "We don't have enough girls. I see a lot of heart though. I want them to know we're proud of them."

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Overlea never had difficulty fielding its teams with 100 girls trying out for varsity certain years. The Falcons won a division championship, finished runners-up in the county several times and always produced winning seasons in that era.

Now some of Overlea's best athletes seem to choose magnet schools like Eastern Tech and Parkville or land in the Catholic League. Plus, the area lacks a recreation program to develop the girls' skills before high school.

"It upsets me," said Donna Harrold, Overlea's first girls basketball coach, who directed the program for 25 years. "I had the athletes. They came there, without a doubt. But I give these girls credit for sticking it out. You have to."

Southern High School of Baltimore City had similar problems asOverlea's and folded its program in January because too many girls quit or became academically ineligible. But not the resilient Falcons.

Despite the blowouts and negative feedback by its peers, Overlea still dives for loose balls and cringes at bad passes. The Falcons have refused to quit.

"I can't get frustrated with the eight girls that keep coming back and trying every night," Ferguson said. "I get frustrated with people that don't show up. These girls have made a commitment and they've shown a lot of character."

Missing the points

The Overlea girls basketball team, winless in its 16 games this season, has been outscored 1,013-295, losing by an average margin of 45 points per game. A look at this season's results:

Opponent Score Mar.

At Hereford 67-2 65

At Carver A&T 47-34 13

Vs. Sparrows Pt. 59-13 46

Vs. Western T&E 92-18 74

Vs. Owings Mills 56-22 34

Vs. Patapsco 44-32 12

Vs. Chesapeake 47-21 26

At Randallstown 67-16 51

At Dundalk 71-24 47

At Loch Raven 68-19 49

Vs. Catonsville 101-14 87

Vs. Franklin 64-16 48

At Parkville 54-15 39

At Perry Hall 66-9 57

Vs. Towson 46-21 25

Vs. Dulaney 64-19 45

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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