From the first day of practice, Ryon Rabon knew the La Plata boys' basketball team would be able to score. The team was more athletic than past La Plata squads, had more talent and greater speed, and the senior guard figured the Warriors would be in for some shootouts.
Still, Rabon was caught by surprise when he looked at the scoreboard after a mid-December game and saw the final tally: Thomas Stone 105, La Plata 88.
"That's not a normal high school score at all," Rabon said. "I could tell from the first couple of open gyms that we had a lot of talent at La Plata and we could put some points on the board, but I had no idea we'd be playing in games like 105-88."
On the other bench, Thomas Stone Coach Dale Lamberth was similarly taken aback.
"I was still complaining about stuff we weren't doing," Lamberth recalled. "And then you look up and say, 'Hey, that can't be the right score.' "
After a month of games, what once seemed like a scorer's mistake or a one-game aberration looks like the beginning of a trend. Scoring in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference is up, nearly across the board.
Entering Friday night's games, nine of the league's 11 boys' teams were averaging more points than they had last season. Four teams -- McDonough, Thomas Stone, La Plata and Great Mills -- had raised their scoring average by at least 10 points.
"It's definitely going up," said McDonough Coach Dave Rooney, whose team has scored at least 75 points three times this season. "It's a different age; teams are up and down more this year."
Players and coaches offer several reasons for the scoring surge. More teams are now pressing and scoring points in transition, smudging away the SMAC's reputation for slow-paced, half-court offenses.
Players are often more athletic; even the league's big men, such as Chopticon's Terrell Reeves and La Plata's Andrew Lee, are comfortable dribbling and making moves in the open court. And coaches are more willing to let players improvise, even if it means occasionally scrapping the set offensive pieces that still fill practice time.
"We've changed a whole lot since my sophomore year," Chopticon guard T.J. Carter said. "We didn't run as much, our style of play wasn't the same. But my junior year and this year [Coach Rich O'Donnell] is letting us get the boards and just go, and we've been successful doing that."
The change can be jarring to coaches; La Plata Coach Mike Meiser said he has looked at his assistant coaches during games this season and pointed out how rarely the Warriors were using their regular offense.
But Meiser has embraced a fast-paced style as the best way to take advantage of his athletic roster, and after going the entire past season without scoring 70 points in a game, the Warriors have reached that mark four times this year.
"We'd rather try to push the ball up the floor and get a quick score than toss it around for 30 seconds and get a turnover," Meiser said. "In the four previous years, we would run if we had the opportunity; otherwise we would run time off the clock in a half-court offense. A 60-point game, that was pretty high; 70 was exceptionally high. If we scored 60, we knew we had a chance to win. We still believe that, but now it's a different style."
And it's a style that, not surprisingly, appeals to many players, who enjoy the opportunities to freelance, the fast-break layups and dunks, and the crowd reactions they bring.
"There's no better way," Thomas Stone forward Daniel Bell said. "I'm a fast-paced kind of guy; I like the games moving. All of us [on Thomas Stone], that's how we all play. We're not the type of team that slows the ball down. We can if we have to, but our style is running."
Teams that play at a slower pace can still succeed; witness Northern's 63-53 victory over No. 16 Thomas Stone on Tuesday. And coaches said games could slow down and scoring dry up in future years, depending on the athletic level of the league's players.
But for La Plata's Rabon, who has seen the impact a fast-break dunk can have on a crowd, this year's change of pace is just fine.
"A lot of the coaches have adopted run-and-gun type offenses and defenses, where we just push the ball up the floor," he said. "A lot of the teams around here have a lot of talent -- with that talent, why not run and gun?"