It was shortly after a preseason scrimmage with Laurel that Blake Coach Damon Pigrom began to have an inkling of how good his basketball team could be this year.

"We had done well in our previous scrimmages against Whitman and Blair, and then we did really well against Laurel, and they're a big, physical team," Pigrom said. "I turned to my assistant coaches and said, 'Wow, are we really this good?'"

The Bengals, throughout the season, answered resoundingly in the affirmative.

In just its fourth year as a varsity program, Blake put together not only its first winning record, but a 20-5 mark that raised eyebrows throughout the area. The Bengals won their first division title, captured their first region title, made the state final four for the first time in school history and finished the year in The Post's Top 20 for the first time ever (at No. 16).

"I'm extremely proud," Pigrom said. "Looking back, it's surprising that we gelled as well as we did as quickly as we did. People think we're an overnight success, but if we are, it's one that took four years."

Blake suffered through a winless first campaign in 1999-2000, but has improved each season. Much of the success, according to Pigrom, is due to the leadership from seniors like Rusty Rulapaugh, Sean McNeely and Philip Pilgrim.

"They're the ones who led us," Pigrom said. "Those guys have been working hard the last four years and putting the team before themselves."

Blake started the 2002-'03 season 12-0, beating Magruder in the final of the Magruder Holiday Tournament and capturing buzzer-beating wins over Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Paint Branch.

The Bengals stumbled a bit, however, before the postseason. They lost their last two regular season games, and Pigrom began to worry they had peaked too early.

But behind its swarming defense and the leadership of its seniors, Blake won three straight games to advance to the state semifinals.

"They redoubled their efforts," Pigrom said. "I was really impressed with how they bounced back."

In the Maryland 3A semifinals at Comcast Center last Thursday, Blake met arguably the top team in the area, Friendly, and lost, 71-51. The Patriots (25-1) ended the season unbeaten on the court (their lone loss was a forfeit, a penalty for an illegal practice) and ranked No. 2 in The Post's final rankings.

"They were well-coached," Pigrom said. "A very good team."

A Hard Loss

All you really need to know about Magruder's basketball team this season was summed up in the moments after the Colonels lost to Oxon Hill, 50-40, in the Maryland 4A state final Saturday at Comcast Center.

"After the game they took it really hard," said Magruder Coach Dan Harwood. "They were crying and hugging each other. You can't fake that. They sincerely had a lot of love for each other as players and fellow students, so that was a real touching moment."

It also underscored why the Colonels enjoyed a 22-4 season that few thought was possible. Magruder entered the season having to replace four outstanding starters -- three of whom are playing basketball in college and another who transferred to a highly-touted private school program. But despite a large drop-off in experience and an even larger drop-off in athleticism and individual talent, the Colonels put together a 22-4 record that included their third straight region championship.

And it was done as a true team, both offensively and defensively. Only one Magruder player averaged in double figures -- junior guard Brandon Giles (14.1) -- but five others averaged between seven and nine points per game. And the Colonels' defense limited opponents to just 49.5 points per game.

"These kids are so coachable," Harwood said. "They've been an unbelievable group to work with."

Though the Colonels will lose seven seniors to graduation, including starters Pedro Argueta and Julius Smith and key reserves Richard Smith and Jeremy Kincaid, don't expect a rebuilding year. Magruder will return its top three guards -- Giles, Jeff Leiter and Ryan Junghans, who combined to hit 149 three-pointers this year -- and 6-foot-5 center Kevin Roach.

Besides, Magruder has done it before. The Colonels have won 113 of their last 126 games, including 71 of 78 during the past three years.

Magruder's Jeff Leiter, right, battles for a loose ball during semifinal win over Glen Burnie. The Colonels reached their third straight state final.Blake's Pilgrim Philip reaches for the ball under Friendly defenders' pressure.