Even when he knew his team needed to be rejuvenated in February, Calvert Coach Tim Contee was scared to tinker with the routine. A dynasty can do that to a coach.
The Cavaliers have won three straight Maryland 2A state titles, with 76 wins spread over those seasons. Contee’s team opened this season with 13 wins in its first 16 games, with a 38-point average margin of victory in those contests.
But Contee knew a reboot was needed after the team lost to defending 4A state champ North Point in mid-February, so he took a chance and lightened up for his players before an important practice. He set up two nets at the ends of Calvert’s gym, and let his players play the game handball. It was an odd scene to Contee. His players ran around the gym giggling while throwing around a bean-bag, kids being kids. The pressure of chasing a fourth straight state title was been lifted out of the gym that day, and the team started practice shortly after.
“We had one of our best practices of the year,” Contee said. “Sometimes because you’re pressured, you’re trying to win all your games. And you put so much pressure on yourself. And just to see them laugh, and play and joke around, and not be so serious, it really helped them a lot.”
Calvert hasn’t lost since. The small exercise didn’t save the season, but when the Cavaliers take the floor in Saturday’s 2A state final against Patterson Mill, they can revel in the fact that it was a turning point during the dog days of winter. To beat the pressure of its past legacy — along with numerous injuries and a lack of depth in numbers this season – Calvert has simply had to adapt.
In 41 years of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association girls’ basketball tournament, only two teams have won four consecutive crowns: Dunbar (Balt.) won four in a row from 2000-2003, while Eleanor Roosevelt won five straight from 2005-2009.
Calvert (22-4) has certainly had to earn its chance to join those teams Saturday. The Cavaliers pieced together a frantic rally in the cramped Largo gym to win the 2A South region title last weekend, and overcame a seasoned Dunbar team late in Wednesday’s state semifinal. The Cavaliers beat the Lady Poets 53-50 behind 29 points from center Daijha Thomas and 13 points from sophomore guard Kayla Gross.
“We know what we have to do,” Gross said after the win. “and we’re getting it done.”
The 6-foot-3 Thomas, who is averaging 19 points per game, has been the constant during a grinding season. Like last year, Calvert has played this season with a short bench – Contee has made due with just nine players, and he said he had to dismiss another player from the team earlier this season. The team has also been hit with nagging injuries, and untimely circumstances. Calvert’s second-leading scorer, Endia Butler, was leveled with a stomach virus against Largo last week, but still helped Thomas lead the team back to the state tournament.
Thomas was in her element Wednesday against Dunbar. The centerpiece of the game plan, Calvert struggled to get her the ball in the post early in the game, but Thomas helped her team by angling for better position as the game wore on, and the entry passes improved as Dunbar tired in the second half. Thomas grew frustrated at times as a junior when the ball didn’t come her way, but Contee said that his senior leader’s maturity has been one of the underlying storylines of Calvert’s run.
“She’s a coach on the floor,” Contee said. “It’s tremendous how much growth she’s made from this point last year until now.”
She improved her scoring from 6.5 to 9.4 from her freshman to sophomore season, and her numbers have jumped up to 16.4 points per game as a junior. But her instincts took over on Wednesday. After Thomas made two errant passes in transition, she slowed down the pace with the ball in her hands in the final minutes, and gave her team the go-ahead score with about four minutes remaining. She scored 17 of her 29 points after halftime.
“It made me work harder knowing that I didn’t want to let my team down, and I’m the captain,” Thomas said after the win. “We’re hungry.”
Even though Thomas will attend Towson next year (Contee said this week is a “homecoming” for her), she got lost in the tunnels of SECU Arena after her postgame press conference Wednesday, having to ask a tournament official how to get back to the locker room. After winning three straight titles at UMBC in Catonsville, the scenery has changed for Calvert this week, but the goal remains the same.
Contee stayed at the arena to scout Patterson Mill (21-4) during its semifinal win over Walkersville Wednesday, which helped him and his staff prepare mentally for Saturday’s final. The pregame routine won’t change much from last year — the team will gather at the school gym for a short shootaround at 9 a.m., followed by a half-hour session with a guest speaker. Then it will eat a hearty breakfast of pancakes and eggs at the school before getting on the bus and traveling to Towson.
“At the end, when everything gets hard, teammates are what you have,” Thomas said. “This is a goal that we all want, which brings us closer and closer together.”