It's still early January, but the Severn girls basketball team has already left plenty of gyms with enough ear-to-ear smiles and happy-ending stories to fill up an entire season.
That's what winning -- 11 straight games to start the season before Wednesday's 61-49 setback to rival St. Paul's -- brings.
The Baltimore metro area's biggest surprise from the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland's B Conference is more proof that big things do come in small packages. With a roster of nine and no player taller than 5 feet 11, the No. 14 Admirals have been stating their case with hustle on defense, resourceful play on offense and a united confidence.
"It's just very exciting to be part of a team that's doing so well. It's like you can't wait until the next game and you just want to keep playing as well as we have," junior forward Kim Warpinski said. "We're just having so much fun when we're out there on the court together. I think it's essential to winning -- playing hard and having fun."
The story that brought the biggest smiles took place Dec. 8 in St. Mary's tiny gym in Annapolis. The Admirals came away with a 45-39 victory over the A Conference Saints in the first meeting between the two in years.
"St. Mary's-Severn is a huge, huge rivalry in everything. And for the girls on our basketball team, to have the opportunity to play St. Mary's and participate in that rivalry is big," said Severn fourth-year coach Chuck Miller, who spent the previous nine seasons as the JV coach at St. Mary's. "For us to go down to St. Mary's and beat them in that gym ... it was the second game of the season, but you would have thought we won a championship."
So who had the biggest smile? Senior forward Jess Adam made sure to take note.
"When the buzzer went off at the end of the game, everybody's immediate reaction was to look over at Mr. Miller to see his expression," she said. "He was throwing his fist in the air, jumping all around and had the biggest smile I've ever seen on anybody's face. It meant the world to him, which was great."
Four years ago, Miller took over a program that had won only five games the year before. At a school where lacrosse reigns, his thought going in was that if he had at least one player who considered basketball her first sport, the Admirals could contend in the IAAM B Conference.
After going 6-13 in his first season, the following 2001-02 season gave Miller a different kind of buzzer-beater. Enter freshman guard Sarah Meisenberg.
"On the last day to put a deposit down for tuition, Sarah came running into the gym to tell me her dad was sending her to Severn. I knew she'd immediately make us better," Miller said.
In Meisenberg and Warpinski, another basketball-first standout, the Admirals had the needed starting points with talented athletes like Adam, a lacrosse standout headed for Duke, all fitting in to make a formidable team that keeps getting better and better. The Admirals won 17 games in 2001-02, 18 last season and are 11-1 this winter.
"Our team is so bonded together," Meisenberg said. "One of the keys to our success is that each player has a specific role and they know what they have to do and all do it well. So when you put all that together, the result is a good one, and we're winning."
Among many other things, Meisenberg will say her role is to score. With three-point range (12-for-36) and the ability to drive and finish with either hand, Meisenberg has averaged 23.6 points this season by shooting 53 percent from the field and 76 percent from the free-throw line. At 5 feet 7, she also averages a team-high 6.2 assists to go with 8.1 rebounds and 4.2 steals.
"Sarah is one of those gym rats -- that's the only way to describe her," Miller said. "If the gym door is open, she's in there. She drives our athletic people crazy because they can't keep her out of the gym."
Going into a scrimmage against a bigger South River team before the season, the Admirals left having played on even terms with the Seahawks. That was the first sign of growing confidence that would be needed in a demanding schedule this season.
Picking up momentum with a 64-59 victory over defending B Conference champ Chapelgate in their season opener, the Admirals got the win over ranked St. Mary's and kept on rolling. The most recent big smiles came at the Queen Anne's Holiday Tournament when the Admirals played South River in the final and persevered with a 67-64 double-overtime win.
With Warpinski averaging 10.4 points, Adam at 8.5 points and a team-high 9.25 rebounds, the team is averaging 59 points -- way up from last season when Miller figured the Admirals needed to hold a team to 45 points to win. The relentless man-to-man defense has remained, limiting opponents to 40 points a game, which has led to more comfortable wins this season.
"They all play very, very hard," St. Mary's coach Harry Dobson said. "The difference in our game was their intensity was much higher than ours. They play like Chuck did when he was a player -- tough, hard-nosed defense."
The Admirals have had team dinners, decorated their locker room, and some players meditate before each game to get ready.
Before the St. Mary's win, Adam wrote inspiring messages for each player to consider.
"There was one something like this: `The harder you work and the more you practice, the greater you want it and the more you love it.' And I think that sort of explains our team in a way," she said.