The fortunes of the Annapolis Area Christian School girls' basketball team have changed drastically from last season.
At this time last year, AACS was struggling. The Eagles were 3-10 overall and 1-6 in Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland "B" conference play.
AACS was exceptionally young last season and did not have many players that were used to getting significant minutes at the high school varsity level.
It was also the first time the players had been coached by Jim Domoracki, who had been away from the program for three years after having coached the Eagles for five seasons. To him, it was a season that required a focus on improving fundamentals.
AACS began to show improvements, though, and finished the season by winning eight of its final 11 games.
"The kids started to buy in," Domoracki said. "We had a good summer and fall, then we hit the ground running this winter. It was a much smoother start this season because the players knew what to expect from a terminology perspective, as well as from me as a coach. We've been able to do more in depth teaching this season, with a higher starting point than where we were last year."
After getting buried toward the bottom of the IAAM "B" conference standings early last season, the Eagles have emerged as one of the top teams in the league. AACS is 13-2 with a 5-0 conference mark.
The team has done well in tournaments, too. AACS has hosted two tournaments, winning both the Eagles Classic and the AACS Christmas Tournament. The Eagles also finished second in their bracket at the Kaylee Scholarship Association Disney Tournament in Orlando, Fla., topping teams from Texas and Oklahoma on their way to the finals.
"It took a while, but this year I feel like we've come together and finally gotten it," junior guard Reniyah Ross said. "We're gelling together really well right now. That's why we're winning -- practicing hard, listening to our coaches, buckling down and focusing."
It's been a total team effort for the Eagles on the offensive side of the ball, as the leading scorer has varied from game to game. Ross leads the way currently with 13.7 points per game, and freshman forward Koi Sims is next at 11.6 points. A pair of sophomores has also been contributing, as guard Ani Gadson is averaging 7.1 points and forward Deja Bristol is at 6.9 points.
To Domoracki, the key to his team's success on offense is its selflessness. The Eagles like to pass the ball, as evidenced by the team's 87-34 victory Dec. 29 against Greater Grace Christian, which had entered that contest undefeated. In that game, AACS scored 35 baskets and recorded 25 assists.
At the center of the team's effort on offense has been junior point guard Morgan DeBeary, who has embraced her role and leads the Eagles with 3.3 assists per game.
"I try to score when it's there, but my main focus is trying to facilitate and get all my teammates involved as best I can, and I think that's really helped our team a lot," DeBeary said. "You can see it in the stats -- we've improved in pretty much every category from last year. This year we're just excited to be on the court together and to continue playing hard. Ultimately, we want to get to the conference championship."
AACS has definitely formed a great foundation to make a league championship run, but the group still has to play many of the teams toward the top of the IAAM "B" conference standings, such as Institute of Notre Dame and Mount de Sales.
The Eagles' toughest test of the season comes in their next game, as the group travels to St. John's Catholic Prep Jan. 12. St. John's is 6-0 in the conference, and whichever team wins that game will be the lone undefeated squad in the league.
It would be a big statement if AACS beats St. John's. The Vikings have been the league's most consistent team in recent years, reaching the championship game in six of the past nine years and winning it five times.
For Domoracki, the key to the game will be which team does the little things well.
"Can you execute under pressure, because on any given night any team can win," Domoracki said. "That's what makes the 'B' conference such a fun league to be a part of. Rebounding, creating turnovers and making your free throws -- whoever wins those battles will win this game."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jim Domoracki