By Matt Brooks
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 21, 2011; 11:01 PM
Five years ago, the Loudoun County girls' basketball team dealt Freedom a tough-to-swallow 75-5 defeat. It could have been just another drubbing in a season full of lopsided losses, as the Eagles went 1-21 in the inaugural season for the new school in South Riding.
But the sting of such a heavy-handed loss to the top team in the AA Dulles District at the time - coupled with a 90-11 blowout to the Raiders the previous month - ignited a fire under first-year coach Jason Eldredge and his young team and established the foundation for what has become one of the fiercest girls' basketball rivalries in the state.
On Monday, the Eagles and Raiders meet again, and as has become routine, first place in the district will be on the line.
"When we started our program, County was where we wanted to be," said Eldredge, now head boys' coach at West Springfield. "We worked to get to that point, and once we got up there with them, both teams have had to work hard to stay on top. It's a constant battle."
Five years later, the Eagles (11-5) and Raiders (11-4 heading into Saturday's game at Park View) have combined for three state championships, three region titles and each of the past five district regular season and tournament titles. Both have sent numerous players to college basketball programs. Together, the programs have firmly affixed the spotlight of Virginia AA girls' basketball on Loudoun.
And although the principal characters who built the rivalry in the past four years have moved on, the fire continues to burn.
So what should those in attendance Monday night in Leesburg expect to witness?
"Expect a brawl," said Freedom senior forward Dionna Scott, who became the program's all-time leading scorer Friday night. "Expect hard fouls; expect a fast pace; expect turnovers. It's going to be a death match until the clock hits all zeros."
Scott, a four-year varsity player, has had her high school career bookmarked by matchups with Loudoun County. Along with senior teammate Kim Koditek and Raiders senior guard Brittany Batts, Scott has taken the mantle from past players and coaches who helped construct the rivalry. The burden this season has been heavy for all three.
Gone are Eldredge, All-Met Kelsey Buchanan (Delaware) and Jessica Escorza (Wofford), as well as 2009 All-Met Meixandra Porter (Colorado State), who led the Eagles to consecutive state championships. As the lone senior on the Raiders, Batts has stepped up following the graduation of Kendra Holmes (Lincoln Memorial) and Alissa Kain (Naval Academy Prep School), in addition to the departure of former coach Kevin Reed, now head coach at Sherando.
"There's been so much talent between the two schools," Buchanan said. "It's always the biggest game on the schedule because you have to beat them to prove you're as good as you say you are."
Both teams have struggled at times this season, and through Friday, both had already equaled their loss totals from last season.
The Eagles, who have played at a considerably slower pace this season and rely on Scott (21 points per game) for 43 percent of their scoring, rolled to a 19-point victory in the teams' first meeting Dec. 14.
But Freedom ended 2010 by dropping four straight games, and the Raiders have picked up their play considerably and boast four double-figure scorers in Batts (19.7) and juniors Erica Linneman (11.8), Casey Cummings (11.8) and Alex Lapple (10.8), making Monday's matchup as important as ever.
"We've just gotten to know each other so well on the court that it just makes us want to beat each other even more," Batts said. "It's going to get nasty. It's going to be more physical than other games, and you cannot be afraid to fight back.
"I think some of the younger girls on both teams were a little tentative the first time because they hadn't experienced it before. Now, I think they understand how big this rivalry is."
The Eagles snapped a string of six straight defeats to the Raiders in 2008 and, over the past three seasons, have won eight of 10 meetings. Monday's matchup will be the 19th in the rivalry, and the two teams are deadlocked at nine wins apiece. Last year, both regular season meetings were showcased as the second half of double-headers with their male counterparts, a rarity that drew standing-room-only crowds.
"If you want to fill up a gym for a girls' basketball game, you better have a product that looks good and you better make it exciting," Reed said. "I think County and Freedom raised that bar to the point where that game was competitive with any boys game out there."
On Jan. 12, Reed watched a capacity crowd file into Sherando's gymnasium in Stephens City for a matchup between his upstart Warriors and undefeated defending AA Division 3 state champion Millbrook. As more and more bodies packed the stands - an unusual sight at a Sherando girls' game - Reed's assistants and managers turned to him, wide-eyed, mouths agape. All Reed could do was grin.
"This is Loudoun County-Freedom," he said to himself. "This is what it's all about."