At least one Broadneck coach noticed something a little different about junior Brian Murray on the bus ride to Southern last Friday. He was more reserved and seemed to be in his own world. In Murray's mind, he was already at the Bulldogs' gym, and he saw himself hitting every shot.

Murray's focus paid off, as his team-high 22 points led the Bruins to a thrilling 66-65 win over Southern, a huge victory for a team that went 1-22 two years ago and won just four conference games last year.

"I was pumped," said Murray, who made four of his six three-pointers in the third quarter. "I was thinking, 'This is going to be my breakout game.' I visualized it before the game. On the bus ride up I was real focused. I hate losing. What's the point of competing if you're going to lose?"

Other county basketball players shared that sentiment Friday night. Chesapeake, which won one conference game last year, surprised Severna Park, 55-43.

Although Annapolis clearly has a stronghold on the conference's top spot, Friday night's results show that the lower echelon of the county is on the rise, and almost nobody in the conference can be taken lightly.

"We're back," said Broadneck junior captain Andrew Holland, whose parents both graduated from Southern. "We can compete with the top county teams, including Annapolis. We were just sick of losing. I told everyone at the beginning of the season, 'I personally can't go for another 1-22 season or a 6-17 season.' Everyone responded."

"I think we're definitely on the rise," Murray added. "We've been struggling a little bit, but it's not a fluke. I guarantee you that [win] opened some eyes. Even if we get beat by a team, they'll have to work for it. Nobody is going to walk over us."

One of Broadneck's victories last year was a 76-58 win against Chesapeake, but the Cougars are also on the rise this season. Chesapeake has found a superstar in sophomore guard Kerwin Porter, who is averaging 24 points per game, but the entire team is much-improved. Junior center Tim Merritt and sophomore guard Cody Kepner also scored in double digits against the Falcons. Kepner hit 8 of 10 free throws.

"Last year was a tremendous struggle, but we went young," Chesapeake Coach Doug Sisson said. "I committed to the young guys. We knew we'd take a beating, but the experience those kids got playing against seasoned seniors has paid off. Now the kids are starting to see we work hard, we've got some good parts, we can do some damage."

It was the first time since the 1996-97 season the Cougars were able to defeat Severna Park, and it was Sisson's first win over the Falcons. Both Sisson and Broadneck Coach Ken Kazmarek are thrilled that the majority of their players are returning next year. Broadneck played a stellar first half in a nonconference loss to powerhouse DeMatha on Dec. 20, and Chesapeake lost two of three games by only five points. For both schools, Friday's wins have the potential to be turning points.

Southern has a small, old-school gym, the kind portrayed in the movie "Hoosiers," and county coaches agree it's one of the toughest places to win. That made Broadneck's victory all the more impressive. Still, there's plenty of season left. Broadneck is scheduled to play Annapolis twice and will face Southern once more.

"It's still early January," Kazmarek said. "We would hope that's not going to be the most exciting game of the year for us. Even though we felt real good about it, we've got a lot of ballgames left."

While Broadneck was at practice at 8 a.m. the following morning, Southern senior Justin Holland was still trying to figure out how his team lost.

"I don't even know what happened in that game," Holland said. "I guess our defense wasn't that good at all. I thought we were going to come back and beat them but we ran out of time."