Earlier this season, Hammond Coach Raymona Reid introduced her team to a large, yellow blocking pad she named Sabrina.
Sabrina is not the Golden Bears' friend. Reid used the pad to torment her players while they took layups. As they drove the lane, she pushed, forcing off-balance shots and awkward attempts.
That is, until 6-foot-1 junior center Alisha Sanford took her turn.
"I guess she was trying to teach us to go up stronger . . . and when I went up against Sabrina, I knocked her [Reid] over. I took her out," Sanford recalled.
If that's any indication of the way Sanford plans to play against county competition, the Golden Bears could be in for a good season.
Tara Zammichieli and Melissa Workman, the duo that led Hammond to a Class 2A state runner-up finish and accounted for 45 percent of the Golden Bears' offense last season, have graduated, leaving Sanford as the lone post player who saw any significant time last season.
"Of course it's going to feel different without them," Sanford said. "They were very good friends and they were nice to have on the team, but also it's really exciting because we all get to show what we can do, and that will be fun."
Hammond's guards -- Chanel Paye, Kelly Berger and Whitney Schrader -- are back this season as well, and before the season, Reid talked with each of her starters to define their roles. Paye is the team's floor general and point guard, Berger the defensive specialist. Reid said she expects Schrader to step up her point production, but Sanford was given the largest role.
"She basically told me that I am basically 'it' inside," said Sanford, who averaged 6.8 points last season. "We really don't have any other inside post players. It's like a team full of guards, and me. She said my role is inside scoring. Most schools have two girls to rebound and she said I need to be a presence and I need to cause problems underneath."
Sanford showed flashes of brilliance last season, but for the most part she was overshadowed by the two-person game that worked so well for Zammichieli and Workman.
"Alisha's role last year was, 'If you can get us points, get them off of the rebounds,' " Reid said. "Because I knew for a fact she wasn't ready to be constantly fed the ball."
That strategy worked last season, and just like she did this season, she defined roles on last season's team. It worked to perfection, with the season ending at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. Hammond won eight of its last nine games and made its first appearance in the state final since 1996, losing to DuVal, 57-46, in the Class 2A championship game.
"I let everyone know who has to do what so you're not going to look at one person and say, 'Why does she always have to score?' Reid said. "Well, the reason she has to score is because I told her that her role is to get me 20 points a night. It helps you understand your place on the team to make sure you step up and do your part of the job. I think that paid off for us last year."
Whether it will pay off this season remains to be seen, but Reid is confident. The one key is Sanford: She has to be ready to be constantly fed the ball, Reid said.
"I honestly think we will be contesting for states again," Reid said. "If our heart is into it and they can actually understand their roles and truly respect the roles, I think we can reach it again."
Boys Hammond Coach Mark Murray would like to run the Golden Bears' offense through senior center Neal Bumgarner. He will first have to get solid guard play, and for the first time in recent memory, Hammond doesn't have a proven back-court player to count on.
"Neal is a center and a lot of what a center does depends on how well the guards play," Murray said. "If they can't get the ball inside to him, if they can't make sharp crisp passes, then he has to do a ton off rebounding, which is unpredictable."
The good news for Bumgarner, the only starter back from last season, and the rest of the Golden Bears is that Hammond's new guards may be up to the task, Murray said. Junior Rasheed Frazier will start at the point, while junior Justin Griffiths will start at shooting guard. Alton Nash or sophomore Kyle Cannon will start at small forward.
If they play well, Bumgarner, a 6-foot-5 big-bodied center, could be a force in the county, Murray said.
"I think he can score inside," Murray said. "He has a wide body, and he has really good hands. He can catch the ball well, and he has all the good basic post moves down."
Coach: Raymona Reid (second season).
Last season: 21-7 overall, 13-5 county.
Last season in playoffs: Lost to DuVal in 2A state final.
Average points scored last season: 61.9.
Average points allowed last season: 53.3.
Last state semifinal appearance: 2002.
Last state title: 1995.
Returning starters/letter-winners: 3/6.
Key losses: F Melissa Workman, G Tara Zammichieli.
Key returners: C Alisha Sanford, Jr., 6-1; G Kelly Berger, Sr., 5-5.
Coach: Mark Murray (seventh season).
Last season: 12-11 overall, 9-9 county.
Last season in playoffs: Lost to Francis Scott Key in 2A West Region quarterfinals.
Average points scored last season: 54.6.
Average points allowed last season: 56.6.
Last state semifinal appearance: 1990.
Last state title: 1983.
Returning starters/letter-winners: 1/4.
Key losses: G Taj Murphy, G Tye Murphy.
Key returners: C Neal Bumgarner, 6-5.
Dec. 13 at Glenelg, 5
Dec. 16 at Howard, 5
Dec. 27-28 at Annapolis Tournament, TBA
Jan. 3 at Mount Hebron, 5
Jan. 4 vs. Long Reach, noon
Jan. 8 at Oakland Mills, 5
Jan. 10 at Wilde Lake, 7
Jan. 13 vs. Howard, 5
Jan. 15 vs. Atholton, 5
Feb. 13 at Long Reach, 7
Feb. 14 at St. Francis, 5
Feb. 18 vs. Oakland Mills, 5
Feb. 20 vs. Wilde Lake, 5
Feb. 24 at Atholton, 5
Feb. 26 at Howard, 5
Dec. 13 vs. Glenelg, 7
Dec. 16 at Old Mill, 7:15
Jan. 3. vs. Mount Hebron, 5
Jan. 4 at Long Reach, noon
Jan. 8 vs. Oakland Mills, TBA
Jan. 10 vs. Wilde Lake, 7
Jan. 15 at Atholton, 5
Jan. 17 at Howard, 7
Jan. 24 at River Hill, 7
Jan. 29 vs. Centennial, 5
Jan. 31 at Glenelg, 7
Feb. 11 at Mount Hebron, 5
Feb. 13 vs. Long Reach, 7
Feb. 18 at Oakland Mills, 5
Feb. 20 at Wilde Lake, 5
Feb. 24 vs. Atholton, 5
Feb. 26 vs. Howard, 5