Montgomery Blair High School's girls basketball team started to turn around its season at the midpoint last season and now it wants to reap the rewards.
The Blazers finished the season strong after a slow start, closing with a 46-43 4A West Region quarterfinal loss to Walt Whitman, the reigning region champions.
“We thought we played well and did compete well, but we also saw we have the potential to go further,” Blair senior Erica Adarkwa said.
Like many 4A teams, Blair players say they have a shot to take the title in a region coaches are saying is up for grabs.
“It really is wide open,” Adarkwa said. “Anyone who is willing to go for it, they definitely have a chance.”
Adarkwa is one of Blair's four returning starters and five seniors. Joining her in the backcourt is senior Maggie McLain, a sharpshooter who missed last season due to injury.
Senior Shannon Healy, a top-scorer, will start at power forward. Senior Debbie Olawuyi will play in the middle and help the team on the boards.
“We have a significant amount of leadership returning, which is great,” said seventh-year coach Erin Conley.
Blair entered last season coming off a 20-5 year, but lost several key seniors and had a new starting lineup. The team's inexperience showed at the beginning of the season, Adarkwa said.
“I think we were trying to find out what type of team we were becoming,” Adarkwa said.
Gradually, the Blazers picked up their play before peaking in the postseason. The three-point playoff loss was a sign of progress, but it left the Blazers wanting more.
Several other 4A teams could contend in the region, including Walter Johnson. The Wildcats suffered a close loss to Whitman — a 49-42 defeat in the region semifinals.
“I honestly think it's anyone's game this year,” Walter Johnson's third-year coach Lindsey Zegowitz said.
Whitman graduated several key players but returns two starters — Maddie Cannon and Avery Witt — and will contend again this season after reaching the state tournament for the first time since 2007.
Twelfth-year coach Pete Kenah said Whitman has a chance to repeat this season.
“There's not the one, dominant heavyweight team out there,” Kenah said.
The parity is new to the region. Gaithersburg was the regional and state champions in 2011 and 2012, winning 53 consecutive games.
The winning streak ended early last season, but the Trojans still made it to the region finals where they lost, 46-31, to Whitman.
Gaithersburg coach Adrian McDaniel, entering his seventh season, said the team will need to develop chemistry if it wants to take back the title.
“Whoever is peaking at the right time during the playoffs is the team that's going to succeed,” McDaniel said.
Blair could make its first state tournament since 1997 if it wins the region. Adarkwa, a four-year varsity player, said she wants to end her senior season on a high note.
“As a senior, I don't want to leave with any feeling that we could have done better … I just want to push others and push our teammates to realize our full potential and go as far as we possibly can,” Adarkwa said.