Woodlawn head boys' basketball coach Bobby Richardson entered this season more confident than most would in his position.
The Warriors enjoyed a strong campaign last season, finishing 26-4 and reaching the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association 3A regional final. Woodlawn was a senior-laden bunch last year, though, and lost seven of its players to graduation. For most programs that would mean a rebuilding campaign the following year, but Richardson was sure his team would suffer no such season.
That being said, Richardson admits he is a little surprised by how well the group has done.
"I knew we had talent coming in, but it would take a lot of conditioning, being fundamentally sound and buying into our process," Richardson said. "If I could have told you that we would be sitting here with a 16-3 record, I wasn't sure about that. I did know we would be competitive and tough to play."
The Warriors have been more than competitive, emerging as one of the Baltimore area's best teams this season. Woodlawn is 9-1 in Baltimore County play, beating traditional powerhouses like Milford Mill Dec. 21 and Randallstown Jan. 18, as well as one of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association's top teams, McDonogh School.
A big key for Woodlawn has been its defense -- the Warriors are allowing just less than 53 points a game.
"We don't leave guys on an island -- if you beat one defender, you'll run into a second, and if you get past him, you'll run into a third," Richardson said. "It's a collapsing defense, a help-and-recover defense, and it's one that requires our guys to use their bodies, not their hands."
The Warriors' pace on defense helps the team transition into its run-and-gun offense, which is fine for senior point guard Christion Wright.
"Our defense turns into our offense. When we get out in a fast break, it's show time," Wright said. "We force the other team into turnovers and get points off that."
Although the Warriors have had some impressive wins this season, Richardson is quick to point to his team's loss against Perry Hall on the road Jan. 25 as its marquee performance of the season. Perry Hall reached the semifinal of last year's MPSSAA 4A state tournament and is in the midst of another standout season.
In a back-and-forth game, Perry Hall came away with a 58-56 victory, but Woodlawn had a couple chances to win late, missing two shots in the final three seconds of the fourth quarter. Senior forward Juwan Lane and junior guard/forward Demauri Warren led Woodlawn with 15 points each.
"Perry Hall was the game where we looked at ourselves and realized how good we are. They're one of the top teams in Baltimore, and we stuck with them the whole game," Lane said. "That gives us confidence going through the rest of the season that we can play with anyone."
To go with Woodlawn's confidence is a large helping of motivation after the way last season ended.
Woodlawn hosted C. Milton Wright in the 3A North regional championship. A win in that game would've placed Woodlawn in the state semifinal for the first time since 2004 and given the team the chance to play at the Xfinity Center in College Park, Md.
The Warriors raced out to a 10-0 lead, but the game was tied at 55 with just more than two minutes left. C. Milton Wright then went on a 15-3 run to end Woodlawn's season, and two games later, the Mustangs won the state championship.
The result has given Woodlawn an extra incentive this year, even for players like Warren, who weren't on the varsity last season.
"The returners came in with a big chip on their shoulders -- they don't want to go through that again, losing to a team they played a close game with, and then seeing that team win a state title," Warren said. "Now we're just focused on winning a state championship."
As motivated and talented as Woodlawn is, it still won't be easy for the group to get out of its region. The 3A North has a plethora of top teams, including Poly, Milford Mill, Franklin, Aberdeen and Edgewood.
It promises to be as hotly contested a region as there is when the MPSSAA state playoffs begin Feb. 25, but Richardson wouldn't have it any other way.
"It just makes you proud because every game you win is a dog fight. I'm looking forward to it," Richardson said. "It would mean a lot for the community for us to get to College Park. I love what I do -- it gets me up in the morning to not only get to work with the student body but also be the school's basketball coach. I am very proud and thankful to be here."