Three of the top four scorers on the Bishop McNamara girls' basketball team graduated last month. The Mustangs' coach also moved on, accepting a job as a college assistant. Left behind are two starters, a handful of role players, a former assistant who has been promoted and seven freshman who have impressed their new teammates.

High school basketball practice does not start for another 41/2 months, but the process of building next season's team is well underway at the Nike Elite summer league. It will be difficult for the new team to measure up against last season's -- which went 27-1 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today much of the season -- but the Mustangs think it can happen.

Opponents "might think that because we lost some people and we lost [the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament final] last year, that we're not going to be as effective this year coming up," said junior guard-forward Ashley Spriggs. "But if that's what they think, then they're in for a surprise."

Of course, the bar is set pretty high at McNamara. The Mustangs were not only good last season, they were dominant. The team won national tournaments in San Antonio, Phoenix and Charlotte. It went undefeated in the regular season, was rarely tested and almost never was in a close game. Each victory was by at least nine points. If not for a 56-55 loss to St. John's to close the season, McNamara would have gone down as one of the greatest high school teams in the Washington area, boys' or girls'.

The nucleus of that team, however, is gone. All-Met center Chauntise Wright will play for Seton Hall. Two-time All-Met Antelia Parrish and guard Nikki Bozeman are headed to Fordham, along with Nikki's father, Mike, who resigned as McNamara's coach to become a Fordham assistant.

Still, the Mustangs are far from helpless. They expect to feature one of the Washington area's best players, senior forward Iman McFarland. McFarland is considered a top national recruit and has received attention from several Atlantic Coast Conference schools and many other prominent programs, including Stanford. She was the team's second-leading scorer last season (12.8 points per game) and probably will make her college decision before the season begins, said new Coach Robert Surratt.

"She can shoot it outside and can also post up," said Surratt, previously an assistant to Mike Bozeman. "Other schools are losing key parts of their teams, too. She has good range. Her ball skills are getting a lot better, to where she can handle the ball."

Junior guard Paulisha Kellum (8.1 points) and junior forward Jori Nwachukwu (4.1) played considerably last winter, and Spriggs (6.8) said she knows she must increase her scoring output this season. Senior guards Alexandra Roane, Teresa Beale and Brandi Walker also come back, though most of the team's returning players will be expected to fill more prominent roles.

"This year, I consider myself a leader [and] role model," Kellum said. "I have to pave the way for the younger girls. I know they look up to me. I have to show them what to do in games, not to break down under pressure."

Said Surratt: "Everybody says, 'Well, the coach has changed, and they're losing three key players.' But we're not the only people to graduate players each year. Other schools are losing key parts of their teams, too. I think we have more of a nucleus of younger girls than everyone else with Paulisha, Jori and Ashley. And they're only juniors. They played a lot last year. They can keep the program going up."

The first step in the process of building a new team began even before graduation, when the Mustangs started summer league play. Seven freshmen have joined the returning players, and the team entered this week with only one loss -- against Good Counsel when Spriggs, Kellum, McFarland and Nwachukwu were absent. Otherwise, according to Surratt and his players, things seem just fine.

"We've got a lot of good incoming freshman, and they've played with us already, so we know they can hang with us. They all hold their weight," said Spriggs, adding that she was somewhat surprised. "I thought I'd go against somebody and they would back down. But they really don't."

That is much needed, because instant help is not readily available -- coaches are unable to recruit other schools' established players because the WCAC transfer rule makes junior or senior transfers sit out a year.

"It's kind of crazy," Surratt said of the rule, which he thinks will end up benefiting public schools that receive older transfers. "I'm not against it, but I'm not for it either."

The rule means it is unlikely there will be any surprise additions to McNamara's roster before the season starts, but that does not seem to matter to the Mustangs.

They said they are confident things are lined up for another successful season. The schedule again will be challenging -- with McNamara trying to defend each of its tournament titles and add the ones it missed, the WCAC and City Title championships.

"We can enter with the same expectations," Spriggs said. "We always have one main goal, and that's to win it all. That's not going to change because of who we lost or who is on our team."

Mustangs' Paulisha Kellum, left, tries to control the ball before St. John's Katherine DeHenzal can get to it.Ashley Spriggs, left, was part of the Bishop McNamara team that last season went 27-1 and was ranked No. 1 by USA Today for much of that run.