It wasn't the winningest girls basketball team Ellen Chapman has coached in her six seasons at Liberty High School, but in a way, this year's was the best.

"They made it fun in a way none of my teams had before," she said. "And that's what makes this team so special. [It wasn't just any] group of students or friends . . . they were closer than that. We were a family--in good times and bad."

The Eagles (19-5) were the only Group AA Northwestern District team to beat Loudoun County, and they again found their way into the postseason. However, they also were upset in the district tournament by Loudoun Valley, putting them into a downward spiral that led to a season-ending 83-69 loss to Turner Ashby on Tuesday in the Region II tournament quarterfinals.

The players expected to advance further.

"We still feel like we should be playing," said junior point guard Jennifer Gray, who averaged 9.7 points and made a team-high 104 steals and 71 assists. "There's still some things we felt we could accomplish."

Most will get a chance to atone in 2000. The team loses only two seniors--Danielle Tapscott and Jennifer Hudson--and believes it learned many valuable lessons this season.

"We're very optimistic about the next season," said sophomore shooting guard Randi Jones, who averaged a team-high 12.1 points per game and was named to the Northwestern District's first team. "We know exactly what caused our season to end. There were just a few minutes this season when we got frazzled out there on the court. And in our league, if you get thrown off your game--even for a second--you're not going to win."

Chapman also is eager for next year. However, the school's only girls basketball coach ever knows it won't be the same as this year.

"It doesn't matter if you add one new player or seven new players to a team," she said. "It changes the personality and chemistry of your team. That's just a fact I've learned. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's just something different you have to deal with."

Liberty will have strong experience returning up front in Krystal Hermes, the center who grabbed a team-high 8.8 rebounds and scored 8.6 points and was named to the District's second team this season. The Eagles also will retain speed, scoring and leadership from Gray and Jones.

"If we play like the way we know we can, we should win the district and [the district] tournament next season," Gray said. "We want a banner."