Westlake junior forward Randy Starks, the only returning starter from last year's Southern Maryland Athletic Conference champion, missed a practice over winter break. The absence was unexcused and Starks was suspended for the team's holiday tournament game with St. Francis of Baltimore; the Wolverines lost that game by 32.

Starks--and the rest of Westlake's team, for that matter--hasn't missed since.

Last night in Waldorf, Westlake handed visiting Great Mills its first conference loss, 65-57, extending its winning streak to four. Starks had a hard-fought 24 points and 16 rebounds against Great Mills center Clifford Dukes, the only player in the conference whose size is a match for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Starks.

"I knew I was supposed to be a leader on this team and I didn't show that," Starks said of his unexcused absence. "When I came back, I made a promise to myself that I was going to do better and that I was going to be a leader for this team."

Dukes is 6-3, 230, and he did a good job of denying Starks the ball for Great Mills (8-2, 4-1). But Westlake (5-6, 4-1) succeeded often when its guards did find Starks, who scored on an array of moves underneath.

"We had hoped to go size-for-size against [Starks], but we also knew that Cliff was going to need help," Great Mills Coach Jake Heibel said. "The help wasn't consistent enough tonight. We know Starks is going to get his points. Unfortunately for us, the other people around him supported him well tonight, and when that happens this team is tough to beat."

Westlake's young guards combined to commit 15 turnovers, but their ball-handling and defense are much improved from earlier this season. The Wolverines, who started the season with four straight losses, used a full-court press on the Hornets most of the night, forcing 19 turnovers.

With Westlake leading by 11 with just under seven minutes to play, Great Mills began to trim the lead. The Hornets got a layup and two free throws by senior forward Alan Hoyt (team-high 18 points) and a short jumper and free throw by Jermaine Saunders to close to 48-44, but they could get no closer.

Starks powered to the basket for an easy layup on the next possession and then used a deft drop-step to work around Dukes, switching the ball to his left hand in the air, for another layup to push the lead back to eight with 4 minutes 36 seconds to play.

"The kids had their heads down a little bit at the beginning of the season because we weren't used to losing, but now we're back into the position we're used to being in," Westlake Coach Jimmy Ball said. "The pressure will be there, but we'll take it. We like being back out in front of the conference."