Chesapeake sophomore point guard Kerwin Porter was so sick of losing games last year he transferred to Cardinal Gibbons, a private school in Baltimore. When things didn't work out academically, though, Porter found himself asking Chesapeake Coach Doug Sisson if he could rejoin the Cougars.
Now, instead of being a role player on an elite team, he is a star player helping Chesapeake rebound from a 3-19 season last year. With Porter's skill and other talented players continually improving, Chesapeake entered this week 8-8 overall, 5-5 in the conference.
"The way we're playing right now, we're on the rise," said Porter, leading the team with an average of 19.5 points per game. "We've got a lot of youngsters playing right now. As we get older, all of the teams are going to be in trouble."
The difference this year is experienced role players. Last winter, Sisson committed to younger athletes, and freshmen learned from their mistakes what it takes to start on varsity. That strategy paid off.
Porter is surrounded by talent in sophomore forward Mike Haynes, sophomore guard Jeff Cottman and junior center Tim Merritt -- all players who started for the first time last year. Haynes is the team's second-leading scorer (10.3 points per game) and top rebounder. He improved his skills through training with his brother, Nicholas, who was a member of Penn State's practice squad.
"Me, Kerwin and Tim have been thrown into the [role of] leaders of the team," Haynes said. "Since we don't really have any seniors who have been producing that well, we've been the main people on the team trying to score, pass and rebound. [This season is] a whole lot of fun. Instead of wondering how much we're going to lose by, it's 'How much can we win by?' "
Chesapeake defeated Severna Park by 12 points and defeated Arundel for the first time since the 1996-97 season. Sisson said he knew this year could be different from the onset -- the Cougars climbed out of a 12-point deficit in the third quarter to beat Chesapeake-Baltimore County, 66-61, in the season opener. It was the 55-43 win against the Falcons on Jan. 3, though, that proved the team was capable of far more.
"We come out in the first quarter [against Severna Park], and I look at these guys going, 'Oh, my God, they're big; they're physical; this is going to be tough,' " Sisson said. "And we beat them. Because it was a county game, I can single that out and say you guys know you can play. They proved they can play."
Old Mill got a taste of Chesapeake's determination last week. The Patriots, who defeated Chesapeake by an average of 28 points in three wins last year, jumped out to a 21-point lead. But the Cougars closed the gap to 66-62 with 19 seconds left in the game, eventually losing, 70-65.
"They didn't give up; they kept playing hard and were taking advantage of our mistakes," said Old Mill Coach Greg Smith. "We played horrible, but the fact they kept fighting, I give them credit for that. . . . We didn't go into that game feeling like we just had to show up. I was concerned about them."
Merritt, the Cougars' top post player, grew about four inches and added some muscle this summer playing AAU basketball with Glen Burnie's leading scorer, sophomore Mitch Guest. Cottman is a strong ballhandler and scored 10 points in the fourth quarter against Old Mill.
"We didn't know we could play as good as we did in the fourth quarter," said Cottman, who hit a three-point shot with 4.6 seconds remaining, closing the gap to 68-65. "Everyone plays hard. We never give up at the end of the game."