Practice begins tomorrow for area high school basketball teams, and nowhere will the vibe be more intriguing than at Forest Park. The Bruins' girls are not only the defending Virginia AAA champions but also are facing their first significant graduation losses since the school opened in 2000.
Six four-year program pioneers have departed, but the players who accounted for 42 of the team's points in a 59-51 win over Woodrow Wilson of Portsmouth in the state championship game -- guards Ashleigh Braxton and Courtney Portell and All-Met forward Monica Wright -- are back off the team that finished with a No. 7 ranking in the Washington area.
Forest Park closed 2003-04 with a 20-game winning streak to become the only Prince William County girls' basketball team other than Gar-Field (1975, 1998) to win a state title.
"I think we're excited, but at the same time, we're also very curious to see what it's going to be like," said Bruins Coach Chrissy Kelly, the All-Met coach of the year last season. "We're used to familiar faces, and those familiar faces aren't here this year.
"I'm thankful I have December and January and half of November to get ready for February, because if it was reversed, we'd have some definite tough times."
Even so, the Bruins have arranged for some tough times. They have scheduled early-season games against Bullis, West Springfield and St. John's, teams ranked 13th, 12th and fourth, respectively, at the end of last season.
The Potomac boys, who won 29 straight games before falling to Woodside of Newport News, 77-73, in the state championship, should be in contention to reach the state tournament for the eighth time in 11 years, this despite graduating Jason Flagler and Bryan Butler, the top two scorers in school history.
The Panthers boast a deep senior class that includes not only 2003-04 regulars Anthony Mills and Jacob Scruggs but other players, such as guard Deralle Piersall, who have been biding their time. Junior point guard Eric Hayes, who has unofficially committed to the University of Maryland, is back to quarterback the team.
"We have high expectations again, and anything less than us trying to get to the state tournament again wouldn't be satisfactory," said 20th-year coach Kendall Hayes, whose team finished last season ranked fourth in The Post Top 20. "We feel we have a team that's very capable of going to the state tournament once again."
The Potomac junior varsity team was undefeated last season, and the freshman squad lost two games. The Panthers, currently in the Cedar Run District, will rejoin the Cardinal District next season, when Culpeper and Fauquier join the Cedar Run.
Cardinal District Boys
Like Potomac, the boys' teams at Forest Park (Kenny Carter), Hylton (Jermaine Hill) and Woodbridge (Daniel Fountain) lost their program's all-time leading scorers. And Gar-Field lost 1,300-point scorer Chris Vann. The losses of those four make the Cardinal a land of opportunity.
Defending regular season and district tournament champion Hylton, which last season reached the state tournament for the first time in its 13-year history, must replace seven of its top eight scorers, most notably forward Hill, also the program's all-time leading rebounder. Only five points of scoring return from the team that lost, 80-64, to Woodside in the state semifinals.
Senior guard Carlos Segarra and 7-foot-2 senior center Matt Hewson, who has signed with the University of Delaware, are the Bulldogs' top returners. Three of Hylton's seven losses last season were to Potomac.
Woodbridge lost its top three point producers, most notably Fountain, now at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. The Vikings also will be under new leadership. Four-year assistant Chad Anderson was elevated to head coach last spring when Will Robinson resigned shortly after being placed on administrative leave. Robinson's teams went 291-103 in 16 years, with 13 straight Northwestern Region tournament appearances before going 6-15 in 2003-04. Anderson played for Robinson, graduating in 1991.
Forest Park lost its top five scorers, including junior guard Ramon Smith (13.2 ppg), who transferred to Alexandria private school St. Stephen's/St. Agnes. The Bruins are coming off a 14-7 season, by far the best in the four-year history of the school.
Gar-Field lost four of its top five scorers, including Mount St. Mary's freshman Vann, who accounted for 41 percent of the Indians' points last season. Junior guard Calvin Booth (9.3 ppg, 33 three-pointers) is perhaps the best returning guard in the district. Gar-Field has reached the region tournament eight times in 12 years.
New school Freedom, coached by former Stonewall Jackson and Forest Park assistant Ahmad Dorsett, will play a varsity schedule in its inaugural season despite not having any seniors. Dorsett, a Woodbridge graduate, was selected from more than 50 applicants.
Cedar Run District Boys
Potomac, 21-2 in Cedar Run play since the district debuted in 2001-02, should again loom large, and there's no doubt its league mates will be glad to see the Panthers pack their bags and return to the Cardinal District.
Osbourn won five consecutive games late last season and qualified for regionals for the second time in three years. Two highlights were snapping a 15-game losing streak in the Gar-Field series and a 16-game losing streak in the Woodbridge series. The Eagles must replace their top five scorers.
Ex-Potomac assistant Bobby Lake is now head coach at Osbourn Park, which has George Mason University signee Chris Fleming (15.1 ppg), a 6-foot-7 forward, and Jeron Ferrell and Jermel Ferrell, transfers from Maryland private school National Christian. The Ferrells should help make up for the losses of the second- through sixth-leading scorers.
Not counting victories as the result of forfeits, the Yellow Jackets have not posted a winning season since the 1980s. Before joining the Potomac staff in 1997, Lake was head coach at Brentsville, where his teams went 86-37, with two Bull Run District titles.
Stonewall went with a young lineup during a 1-22 season and lost two of its top three scorers. New school Battlefield is already on its second coach after the initial hire, Brett Vincent, who had accepted the position in March, decided in July to not take the job after all. The school replaced him in August with former Gar-Field junior varsity coach Al Ford. Like Freedom, Battlefield will have no seniors and will play a varsity schedule.
A change in the Cedar Run this school year for all sports: The regular season champion will earn the district's top seed into the regional tournament. In past years, and still the case in the Cardinal, the district tournament champion earns the top regional seed.
Cardinal District Girls
Forest Park remains the team to beat in the Cardinal, even though beyond Wright, Braxton and Portell, no returning player averaged more than 1.9 points a game.
Woodbridge shows promise, with its top five scorers being non-seniors last season, including inside threats Ariene Jenkins and Chinyere Ukoh and guard Jessica Taylor. Woodbridge has reached regionals for 13 straight years but had its string of seven straight 18-win seasons snapped last year. Jenkins is the area's leading returning public school scorer, at 16.5 points per game.
Gar-Field, seeking its first winning season in four years, returns no player who averaged more than five points. Hylton, with four straight winning seasons, graduated top scorer Shareka Purnell, and second-leading scorer Griselda Shutermeja has transferred to Forest Park.
Two-year Hylton assistant Aubree Lawrence is the coach at Freedom.
Cedar Run District Girls
Osbourn Park has won the past two regular season Cedar Run titles and Potomac has won the past two tournament crowns.
Osbourn Park lost leading scorers Erin Myers and Sarah Thompson off its first winning team since 1995-96, but sophomore guard Courtney Hamner emerged as a player to watch toward the end of last season.
Potomac senior guard Jameka Smith averaged 15.8 points a game, but the Panthers' second through fourth scorers have graduated. Potomac has posted a winning record five of the past six seasons.
Nsonji White is Stonewall's third coach in as many years. Three of the Raiders' top four scorers last year were non-seniors. Osbourn, which dropped games by an average margin of 31.1 points in 2003-04, lost only two seniors off last year's team and enjoyed a productive offseason at both team camp at the University of Richmond and in the Westfield summer league. The team's lone win last season was against Stonewall.
Battlefield will be coached by former Forest Park assistant Eric McCaslin. The fledgling Bobcats already boast a win over his old school -- via summer league forfeit.
Brentsville, Manassas Park
Brentsville begins its second season in the AA Northwestern District. The girls' team made a fairly smooth transition last year, finishing in the middle of the pack after making the move from Virginia A competition.
The boys' team, which lost just four regular season district games its final three years in the Bull Run District, did not fare quite as well in its first run through the Northwestern. The Tigers return senior forward Jacob Lavely (15.1 ppg.).
The Manassas Park boys reached the Region B tournament for the first time since 1996 by finishing as runner-up to Clarke County in the Bull Run District both during the regular season (after a playback game) and in the tournament. Tabitha White averaged 16.1 points for the Manassas Park girls.