Forest Park Coach Chrissy Kelly recently read a Sports Illustrated story about how the program she most admires, the Duke men's team, is trying to mesh its star seniors with talented younger players to make a run at an NCAA championship.
Drop it to the high school level, change the gender and make the ultimate prize a state title, and that's pretty much her challenge with Forest Park. So Kelly, who has attended a Duke clinic for the past four years, has tapped into Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski's ideas in dealing with her own team.
"The parallels are pretty amazing, and I've used that article as something for [my players] as a guideline," said Kelly, whose roster includes Division I signees Monica Wright and Ashleigh Braxton but also several unproven players, including five freshmen.
"The ratio of experience to inexperience has been so much greater [in recent years], and all of a sudden we're on the flip side where we return two starters but only three people with any real experience," she said. "People have to step up to the plate to maintain the tradition of success and understand the way we run this program."
Krzyzewski forbids freshmen from having cars on campus, forcing the young players to carpool -- and, presumably, bond -- with the older players. He also assigns each freshman an upperclassman to ease the transition to the college game. Kelly is using a similar approach, with a returning player each week being responsible for a new player.
"It's taken the overwhelming feeling away from Monica and Ashleigh and the communication lines open up a little bit more," Kelly said. "The older kids are so far advanced at times that they can't relate, but they have to put themselves back and embrace them and pull them along. When the older kids make those kids feel like they belong, they become a better basketball team."
Like Duke, which lost to Michigan State in the round of 16, Forest Park fell short of its goal last season, losing to Princess Anne in the state championship after winning it in 2004.
The Bruins will be tested early this season at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix from Dec. 19 to 22. How stacked is that 16-team bracket? Forest Park is one of only three schools not to be ranked in the USA Today Top 25. The Bruins open with No. 2 Collins Hill (Ga.) and in the second round will face either No. 16 Good Counsel or No. 11 Mountain View (Utah).
Woodbridge had qualified for 13 consecutive region tournaments before being bounced out in the district semifinals last season. The Vikings boast a solid back court keyed by juniors Brittni Dixon-Smith (21 points in the opener Wednesday against Edison) and Jessica Taylor and a proven inside presence in senior Ariene Jenkins.
Jenkins was overshadowed at times last year by the rapidly improving Chinyere Ukoh (now at Hampton University) but still put together a strong season. Coach George Washington said that Delaware and Virginia Commonwealth have each offered Jenkins a scholarship.
The Vikings' 67-39 loss to Edison in the season opener only fueled speculation that Woodbridge again will finish behind Forest Park and Hylton in the Cardinal.
"I think people think we're down, and they really think we're down now," Washington said the day after that game. "We just need time on the floor and the girls need to understand me and I need to understand them. They've gotten a year older, and when you get a year older, they [think they] know more than you do now. It's about teaching and understanding."
Few players in county girls' basketball history have experienced as much high school success as Emily Faught, now head coach at Hylton. Faught's teams at Gar-Field -- she graduated in 1997 -- lost only eight games during her career.
That background should carry some influence with a Hylton team that returns all but one player, a reserve, off a 15-win team from last year, including all-region sophomore guard Ariana Moorer and post players Asha Gwynn and Ashlee Keown.
"We have the athleticism, but I told the girls I don't want to have to rely on that," said Faught, who played at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and was an assistant at VCU and Wagner. "I want them to learn the game and understand why we're doing certain things."
An early test comes Friday against Forest Park.
The other new coach in the district is Mike Wilson at Potomac. The former Woodbridge assistant inherits a program that reached the state tournament last season for the first time since 1987. The Panthers return their leading scorer, 6-foot-4 all-region selection Lynetta Kizer, but the next nine leading scorers are gone.
Kizer's sister, freshman point guard Quiana, is another key player.
"Right now, winning and losing are probably the last things on my mind," Wilson said. "As long as we can get an understanding of what we're doing by February, then I think we'll be okay. There's no panic going on here."
The Panthers, who won the Cedar Run District regular season or tournament all four years in that league before rejoining the Cardinal this school year, are carrying only 10 varsity players, and there are 10 on the junior varsity. Potomac has no freshman team.
Just as Kelly picked up some pointers from Krzyzewski, Gar-Field Coach Larry Baker picked one up from Maryland women's coach Brenda Frese. Baker told her that he wanted his girls to play more as a team and not as a bunch of individuals. Frese suggested team-building exercises at Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education in Clifton. The Indians did that one Saturday in October, and Baker has seen results.
"I noticed that they were more responsible to each other during offseason conditioning," said Baker, whose team returns eight of its top nine scorers. "I can't make it mandatory because it's offseason, but they knew they were responsible to each other by virtue of things we talked about at Hemlock Overlook."
Baker is expecting a breakout season from senior guard Devona Knight, perhaps the top threat on a team with experience and ball handlers but little height. The Indians would prefer a full-court game to a half-court game. At times, they might play a five-guard lineup.
Freedom Coach Aubree Lawrence can point to several pleasing moments from 2004-05, her team's inaugural season, including scoring 70 points in a game against Stonewall Jackson and taking Osbourn Park to double overtime.
"Last year our record was 1-22, but it didn't feel like 1-22," she said. "We just had so many games that were right there that it felt like we were still successful even though our record didn't say we were successful as far as wins and losses."
Junior Domonique Stroman, senior Kayla Dozier and sophomore Alysa Kerr are the top returning players, and transfers Janiesha Welch (Potomac) and Chapal Walker (Hylton) will step right into the rotation.