The friendly banter flows back and forth among the members of the Heritage boys' basketball team as quickly and fluidly as the smoothest pass into the post. The ease among the Pride players stems from years of friendship and a bond on the basketball court that formed after Heritage opened in 2002.
"We've all grown up together," senior center Quinn Tibbs said. "We were friends even before basketball, but these last four years have really made us tight."
The seniors on Heritage's roster -- returning starters Tibbs, Bryan Brosnan, Nick Scott, Paul Shockley and Rusty Smith -- have helped to build the Heritage program since its inception. Tibbs and senior Dale Taylor, who has returned this year after sitting out the past two seasons, were full-time members of the Pride's varsity program as freshmen. Brosnan and Shockley moved up to varsity midway through their freshman year, and the others joined as sophomores.
Since completing that inaugural season 1-21, Heritage has blossomed, going 15-9 the following year and 14-9 last season, including winning 10 games in the AA Dulles District to finish tied for second in the district race.
This, though, is the year for which Heritage really has been waiting.
"This group of kids has beaten every team in our district at least once, including Loudoun Valley and Stone Bridge, who aren't even in the district anymore," said Coach Mark Mallisham. "And they're all back. So I can't lie to you: We've been looking forward to this basketball season. It's time for us to move our winning tradition into a championship tradition."
Shockley enjoys the most acclaim, after leading the district in scoring last season with 16.8 points per game, including 49 three-pointers, and adding 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.8 assists. But it's the unity of the group as a whole -- and its work ethic -- that has proved most valuable in its growth.
Since being knocked out of the Dulles District tournament in the first round a year ago by Park View, the players say their joint determination has flourished as well.
"Ever since the end of last year, everyone has been working hard, and if someone sees you not working hard enough then they're going to push you even harder," Scott said. "That's the way it is with us. There's not just one leader on this team. Everyone put their two cents in when they see something. That's how we all stay on the same page."
Mallisham said the challenge for him is getting this close-knit group of friends not just to encourage each other but really to push each other in practice.
When the players are away from the court, there is a great deal of competition. They often engage in PlayStation 2 battles or vie at bowling, and each has sworn he is the best. On the court, there sometimes is a hesitation to cross the lines of friendship.
"Because they're really close to each other, sometimes I have to push them to be as competitive as I want and to really get on each other," Mallisham said. "I have to push their buttons a little bit to make them go a little harder after each other. But I've learned how to do that."
As competitive as the friends are, there's no question that this group of seniors is working toward a common goal.
"With all honesty, I really think this will be the year for Heritage," Tibbs said. "This is what we've been building to for years now. It's time for us to make our mark."