The Loudoun County girls' basketball team began play Tuesday with an ideal opportunity to validate its grand expectations for the upcoming season.
The senior-laden Raiders traveled to reigning Dulles District champion Broad Run, which Kevin Reed had not beaten in his first three seasons as head coach. With a confidence-building 49-36 victory over the Spartans, Loudoun County assumed the label of district favorite.
"It was so important," senior guard Octavia Trammell said. "We got the monkey off our back, so to speak. That game felt like a championship game for us. We had to get the win to start our season. We can't do anything but get better from here."
The Raiders finished 18-6 last season (11-3 in the district), as four of the team's top five scorers were juniors (the other was a sophomore). Loudoun County's hopes of qualifying for the Region II tournament, however, were dashed by a 41-31 double-overtime loss to Stone Bridge in the Dulles District tournament semifinals.
The three players who led the team in scoring last season are back as seniors this year. Two of them, Trammell and forward Camille Wilmer, were named first-team all-Dulles District. Reed is hoping that with such a veteran team, the Raiders will make a memorable run in the Region II and AA state tournaments.
"The experience that we have coming back is just wonderful to have," Reed said. "When we step into the season, we already understand what we're doing drill-wise, fundamentals-wise and scheme-wise. We're able to install new sets, quick-hitters. The kids just have a real understanding of the game of basketball."
Loudoun County graduated one senior from last season's team, and the continuity provided by those who remained enabled the Raiders' impact players to continue developing as a unit.
Off-season activities included a summer basketball camp at the University of North Carolina, weightlifting and agility workouts and a fall basketball league.
Reed said his players improved noticeably in the off-season. Wilmer, who averaged a team-high 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds as a junior, is more aggressive and refined on offense, he said.
"She has multiple post moves," Reed said. "She can drop step, up-and-under, hit a little fade-away. She can catch and face the basket, and she can step out and shoot the 18-footer."
Wilmer, who will play at Division II Shepherd College next season, led the Raiders with 14 points against Broad Run. She is prepared to power the Raiders' offense again.
"I know the team is counting me," she said, "so I try to pull through for them."
Trammell and senior Amy Sarver, who have played together for about eight years, starting in grade school, are a formidable back-court duo. They combined to average just below 20 points per game last season.
"We know what each other does, and we have a lot of chemistry," Trammell said. "It gives you a lot of confidence because you can rely on your teammates."
Sarver expects the Raiders to benefit from their experience in close games and in hostile environments.
"We all just know how each other plays," she said. "Like, on defense, I know which area Sarah [Brown, a senior,] is going to get in the 2-3. It's knowing what the person is going to be able to do without communication. That's nice to have when it comes down to times when it's a tough game, and it's loud in the gym and you can't speak."
Although Reed was pleased with Loudoun County's start to the season, he emphasized that the team's goals are far from fulfilled. The Raiders won't be satisfied until they win a championship, and experience doesn't guarantee that.
"If we don't win the district," he said, "we'll be very disappointed.