Coach John Brady's advice to his Annapolis boys' basketball team when it began its summer league season was simple: Don't be afraid to try new things.
"I didn't want them to be afraid of failing," Brady said. "If they wanted to try a new move or work on some individual part of their game, they should go for it. I just want to see them to get better individually."
Annapolis's players have seen mixed results so far this summer, but that's because the team is trying something new: playing in two of the area's most competitive summer leagues.
Annapolis's varsity team no longer plays in the Anne Arundel Recreation and Parks Summer League and an Annapolis league, where in previous summers it has competed against other county high school teams and some adult squads.
Instead, the Panthers are crossing the county line to participate in two summer leagues composed of many of the state's top high school teams. Brady and his players hope that tougher competition this summer will produce a more successful season next winter.
"We needed to play against the best teams we could to get the most out of the summer season," Brady said. "I thought it was something our team needed to do."
Annapolis is playing at St. Paul's School for Boys in Brooklandville against several of the best teams from the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association's A Conference. The Panthers, along with Southern, also play at Gwynn Park in Brandywine, in the We R One League, a 24-team field comprising teams from Prince George's, Charles and Calvert counties.
By making the 35-mile trip south to Gwynn Park, Annapolis gets to compete against teams from the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference and gets an early look at teams it could face in the 3A South Region tournament next March.
The winner of that tournament earns a spot in the state tournament, something that has eluded Annapolis for four years. The Panthers' season ended this past year with a first-round loss in the regional tournament to La Plata, a member of the SMAC. At Gwynn Park, Annapolis also will face some of the best 3A teams from Prince George's County -- including Gwynn Park, last year's state finalist.
Under state high school athletic rules, Brady is not allowed to coach the summer team, so Ron Ward, a firefighter in Anne Arundel County, is directing the squad.
"Last year we didn't really know what was out there when the playoffs started, but by playing this summer we'll have a good idea, and we'll know how to prepare for those teams," said Annapolis junior forward Kevin Coates. "I think getting to play against the top competition will make us a better team than we would be if we played against teams that weren't as good."
The Panthers entered the week 1-3 at St. Paul's and 3-4 at Gwynn Park, including a 29-26 victory over Calvert on June 24.
Against Calvert, the Panthers sent mixed signals. The team showed it was much improved at the free throw line, making 6 of 8 attempts, far better than the 53 percent it shot last winter. Brady has said poor free throw shooting was one of the big reasons Annapolis went 13-10 last winter, losing six more games than it did in the previous three years combined.
"We had a bad year last year -- we didn't have that year Annapolis is supposed to have," said junior guard Justin Brown, who averaged 12.2 points per game last season. "I think that has really motivated us because we know we can't keep making excuses, because Annapolis has such a great tradition."
This summer the Panthers are feeling the absence of graduated All-County guard Tavon Randall, the team's leading scorer (18.7 ppg), as players try to determine their roles. Returning starters Coates, Brown and senior guard Trayvon Parker have played well in spurts but have yet to find the consistency the Panthers need.
Five players from last season's junior varsity team are improving with the summer experience, with sophomore guard Lateef Williams and junior forward Damien Kenchens making the most progress.
Annapolis and Southern are not the only county teams traveling farther for more competition this summer.
Severna Park plays at Boys' Latin School in Baltimore, facing some talented MIAA teams, and Old Mill competes in the Falconer's League at Riverdale Baptist, with games set against defending 2A champion Friendly, Dunbar, Riverdale Baptist, Largo and National Christian.
"You always want to play against the best teams you can," said Severna Park Coach Paul Pellicani, whose defending county champion Falcons are also playing in the summer league offered by Anne Arundel Recreation and Parks and composed only of county teams. "We play basketball as a team in the winter, but we use the summer to get better as individuals."
Though it is unclear how playing in more competitive summer leagues will affect the county's teams, the consensus is that it was a good move.
"The first thing I noticed when I looked at the some [summer] leagues across the area is that a lot of teams from Anne Arundel County are playing in them, and that didn't happen a few years ago," Gwynn Park Coach Steve Matthews said. "They always stayed in their own county and never knew what else was out there, and so they didn't how to go against teams that played a different style of basketball than what they were used to seeing all year. I think this is a big step Anne Arundel County has taken, and I think their teams are going to be better because of it."