Few teams are entering the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association boys' basketball state tournaments with as much momentum as Old Mill.
The Patriots (19-4) have not lost since a 48-32 setback against Dunbar Jan. 13. Their win streak spans 13 games, the most recent of which was a 44-39 victory against Southern in the Anne Arundel County Championship Feb. 20. The win gave Old Mill its second straight county title.
"It feels great to be county champs, but it's just one title, and to be honest, it's not the one we want the most," senior forward Hollique Johnson said. "We want to go to Xfinity Center and win a state title, so it's time to move on and start working our way there."
That mentality is a welcomed approach for head coach Mike Francis, who believes last year's team met its expectations for the season when it won the county title.
"That group set their big goal to be county champs before the season started," Francis said. "They did it and reached their goal. As coaches, you hope for bigger goals than that from your team. This year, our group definitely has that larger goal in mind."
That goal started at the end of last season. After the team's strong regular season, the Patriots topped Arundel in their state playoff opener before getting bounced from the tournament by Meade, a team they had already beaten twice. This year, the team decided it wasn't going to suffer that same fate.
The Patriots struggled to put it all together early, going 2-2 to open the season, dropping their opener to Great Mills and later suffering a loss to River Hill.
Francis said the group's struggles began on the defensive side of the court. Old Mill regularly rotates nine players during games, four of which had either played on the JV the previous year or transferred in. They needed a new approach.
Last year's team was more experienced and entered the season knowing what was expected on defense. This year's group had to be caught up to speed.
"We didn't know our roles at first, so everyone was playing more selfishly as a result," junior guard/forward Daevone Johnson said. "By midseason, we figured out where everyone should be as well as everyone's strengths."
Putting an added emphasis on rebounding has also been crucial, and for Francis, one of the main reasons why the Patriots have not lost in more than a month. Old Mill lost two of its key rebounders from last year's team to graduation and experienced an influx of guards to replace their roster spots. This means Old Mill sometimes runs a four-guard lineup.
The Patriots still have a traditional physical interior presence in the form of Hollique Johnson, but opponents started to mark a couple guys on him to lessen his rebounding impact. Francis countered that by having every player, no matter how small, crash the boards.
"What happened when the guards started going for rebounds was that it didn't just help me out," Hollique Johnson said. "Once we grab the boards we can start going down the court faster than we used to be able to. We're getting a lot more layups now, and I'm even able to get out and run the floor now too. It helps when the whole team has to rebound."
Old Mill enters the state playoffs as the top seed in the MPSSAA 4A East, Section I. The Patriots have a first-round bye and will face either North County or Arundel -- two teams they beat during the regular season -- Feb. 26. During its current win streak, Old Mill has beaten the five other teams in its section by an average of 24 points per game.
A deep playoff push would be a big moment for the program. The Patriots have won just four regional titles in their history, the most recent of which in 2010 led to their appearance in an MPSSAA state title game. In that game, Old Mill lost to Springbrook, 74-67.
Francis believes this team that has the best chance of any during his four years at Old Mill to take the program where it's never been before.
"Defensively we're where we want to be," Francis said. "In the county title game, we only scored seven points in the first half, but we gave up 14 to keep it close. We are playing as well as we have all year because of our defense. If you keep your defensive principles, you'll be in good shape during the playoffs."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mike Francis