The Long Reach girls' basketball team is in the midst of the strongest era in its history.
Since the school opened in 1996, Long Reach has finished the bottom half of Howard County's standings. But the Lightning burst onto the scene with a young and energetic group in the 2015-2016 season, finishing with a 17-6 record. Last season, the team proved the previous campaign was no fluke, as they went 19-6 and reached the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association 3A East regional championship game.
The core of the group has remained the same during the current run, which has given the Lightning a level of experience they previously lacked.
"I knew we'd be talented, but I didn't know how we'd gel as a group," head coach Kelli Cofield said. "We didn't graduate a lot of statistical leaders, but we did lose some locker room leaders. I was curious to see what our dynamic would be this season, and thankfully our players have stepped up."
This season, Long Reach is 8-0 and has beaten its opponents on average by more than 23 points.
The Lightning have stuck with a formula that has worked for them in recent years -- utilizing their speed and athleticism to overwhelm opponents, create turnovers and score easy baskets in transition. For Cofield, it's a matter of playing to the group's strengths.
"Anyone who gets it off the backboard can bring the ball up, so we want to get it out and run," Cofield said. "These girls are great athletes. I don't want to stifle them by putting them into a slow, methodical system."
The team's strengths were on display when Long Reach beat Howard, 70-51, Jan. 3. Howard has been the top program in Howard County in recent years, winning three of the past five county titles, including the past two.
Long Reach fell behind 10-2 to open the contest, but finished the first quarter on a 17-7 run. The Lightning, led by junior guard Lyric Swann's 19-points, pulled away as the game wore on.
"We kept our turnovers down so they didn't get as many points in transition as they usually do, while also making them turn over the ball," senior guard Kiana Williams said. "Our defense did a good job of guarding their really good 3-point shooters, and our transition game was also strong."
In Williams and Swann, Long Reach has a duo that started for the team as freshmen and will soon be playing at the NCAA Division I level. Williams has signed to play at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., while Swann has committed her future to UMBC.
The tandem epitomizes Long Reach's reputation of possessing dynamic playmakers, but both offer different skillsets. Swann couples her ball-handling abilities by being an excellent shooter -- she leads the team in scoring with 18.1 points per game. Williams has been more of a facilitator this season, leading the group with 7.8 assists per game, while averaging 13.8 points.
"My decision-making is made a lot easier when I have two Division I point guards on the floor at the same time," Cofield said. "A lot of our success starts there because you don't usually see two players of that caliber on the same team."
Williams and Swann have been aided by the development of junior forward Arianna Briggs-Hall. Last season, Briggs-Hall had games in which she was a dominant post player, including a 26-point, 19-rebounds performance against Crossland, but she struggled with consistency. That's changed this season, as Briggs-Hall is averaging 14.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
"Arianna has turned into a sure thing on the court; you know what you're going to get from her," Cofield said. "She also brings a toughness we really need. Typically, teams that try to win by running up and down court aren't as physical on the boards, but we have that with Arianna."
It doesn't look like Long Reach will slow down any time soon, though it does have a challenging remaining schedule, including a matchup with Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland "A" conference powerhouse McDonogh Jan. 20.
Ultimately, though, it's the playoffs where Long Reach will judge its season. As well as the Lightning have done in recent seasons, the group hasn't captured an MPSSAA regional championship.
"It's exciting to be a part of school history," Swann said. "These last couple years we've broken a lot of records; it's been a wonderful journey. We think this could be our year to go all the way and represent Howard County in the state final four. We want to win counties, then regionals and states. It'll be tough, but that's what we want to do."
Photo Credit: Israel Carunungan/LRHSBoosters.com