In the weeks leading up to the start of the season, coaches throughout Howard County regularly described the Atholton boys’ basketball team as a dark horse, an outside contender, a middling team with transfers that could maybe join the county’s elite.

But when Atholton Coach Jared Albert sat down with his players to set goals for the season ahead, it became clear that they had loftier expectations for themselves.

“One of the goals was obviously to be at the top of our county,” Albert said. “I think the kids really bought into that.”

The Raiders bought into that goal, then accomplished it Friday night. With a 41-30 victory over Mount Hebron, as well as Centennial’s overtime win against Oakland Mills, Atholton secured its first regular-season county title since 2009, when Albert’s father, Jim, was coaching the team.

Oakland Mills went unbeaten in Howard County last year and led the way for most of this season as well. But after losing to the Scorpions on Jan. 13, Atholton (18-3, 17-2) won eight in a row by an average margin of 13 points to leapfrog them at the very end.

Host B.J. Koubaroulis runs through the top plays from the week of basketball in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

“The Oakland Mills game, it was a tough game for us,” senior forward Michael Bernetti said. “We basically knew that if we wanted to have a shot at the county title, we’d have to win the rest of our games. And it just was like a motivating factor for us.”

When discussing the team’s turnaround, Albert praised the resilience and leadership of his five seniors, including Bernetti, who leads the team in scoring. But Albert said the loss also prompted him to make a small but important change in practice.

Instead of running their usual four-on-four drills, the Raiders switched to three-on-three drills for defensive purposes. With fewer players on the court, defenders could more easily understand where they should be positioned on particular plays and why.

Atholton went on to hold five of its final eight opponents to 50 points or fewer and finish second among all Howard County teams in points allowed per game (51.1).

“We did a lot of shell defense type stuff, and that really helped us to know where we’re supposed to be in certain positions when other teams play us in certain sets,” Bernetti said. “It allowed us to kind of learn the positioning for our defense a little bit better.”

The Raiders have a first-round bye in the Maryland 3A East region playoffs and will face the winner of Friday’s game between Glenelg and Wilde Lake. Albert, who described himself as a “creature of habit,” said he will not change the way the team practices leading up to its first playoff game.

“We can’t really worry about who we’re playing, just how we play,” Albert said. “I think right now, we know who we are, we know what we do and that’s what we’re going to go out and practice.”