BETHESDA, Md. — It’s that special time of year, when hoop miracles seem like they happen every time you turn around to catch a highlight from the last one you missed. But one local high school basketball team already enjoyed its one shining moment, and is still basking in the glow of a state championship.
The Walt Whitman High School girls basketball team had something of a “team of destiny” title preordained upon them from the moment the now-seniors stepped on campus. But that doesn’t mean anything came easy.
“Our freshman year me, (fellow seniors) Betsy (Knox) and Hannah (Niles) did a weightlifting class together, and a teacher walked in and said ‘I hear you guys are here to update the (state championship) banner’,” says senior guard Marie Hatch, who was named to the 4A/3A West All-Division 2nd Team Monday. “I guess since then it’s just been our biggest goal.”
That banner hadn’t been updated since 1995. It nearly happened last season, but the dream died two stops shy of its final destination in the state semifinals.
One reason why was health, or the lack of it. Hatch broke her ankle in last year’s regional final and missed the season-ending loss in the next round. But the team came into this year determined not to be thwarted again.
During a players-only meeting before the season began, they all agreed that a state title was the goal, and anything short of that wouldn’t be enough.
Still, the team started the year with a blowout loss. And after a loss to St. John’s the day after Christmas — in a game they led big early, only to watch the Cadets come roaring back for a 62-43 win — there was a moment of re-evaluation.
For head coach Pete Kenah, it meant sharing the ball more, and admitting when he needed to play zone defense to save his players’ legs. The adjustment worked, to the tune of 14 straight wins heading into the playoffs. But the dreaded health issues began to creep in once more.
Hatch was on a minutes restriction due to an earlier injury. Niles came down with a virus. Even a leading bench player had a turned ankle.
“The coaches, we just looked at each other like, ‘this can’t be happening’,” says Kenah. “It all came together, but there were some harrowing times leading up to it.”
After a rollicking 71-27 win over Blair in the section semis, Whitman found itself trailing a B-CC team it had beaten by 25 points earlier in the year at halftime of the section final.
“I think we needed something like that to give us a wake-up call,” says Hatch. “After that halftime, we just never looked back.”
Whitman played a total of 14 quarters over the second half of that game plus the final three games en route to their state title. They outscored their opponents in 13 of them, finally dispatching Western 71-55 to become Maryland 4A state champs for the first time in 21 years.
The experience of having been there before certainly didn’t hurt. Whitman was the only one of the final four teams to have made it as far the season prior.
“It was slower this time,” says Niles, who took home 4A/3A West All-Division 1st Team honors. “It felt like it was our home court.”
It certainly must have felt like it after the win, as the players came out to be congratulated by the hometown fans in attendance at Towson University’s SECU Arena. But of all the perspectives of the moment, Kenah might have had the best as he watched the sheer exuberance of his players celebrating.
“Seeing them, the joy in their faces when they rushed out on the court was priceless for me, it really was,” says Kenah. “They put in the hours for it, they got their moment.”
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