The Chesapeake girls basketball team has a prickly thorn in its side, and it’s a persistently familiar one for anyone who has competed in or followed sports in Anne Arundel County: Severna Park.
The Falcons are the only county team the Cougars have not beaten during the highly successful tenure of head coach Maria Gray, now in her fifth season as Chesapeake coach.
The losses include a buzzer-beater in 2017 and a 2018 home loss that kick-started Severna Park’s second-half-of-the-season surge and run to the 4A East region final.
Despite this extra motivation, the Cougars couldn’t engineer any flipping of the script when the teams met at Severna Park on January 8. The Falcons employed a smothering defense to disrupt a hitherto potent Chesapeake offense, holding the Cougars in check and grinding out a 34-30 win.
“We got it done, that’s the biggest thing,” said Severna Park head coach Kris Dean. “You’ll have games like this, just a gritty game… [Chesapeake is] fast and they move a lot, and they’re just a tough team to defend consistently.”
Chesapeake’s Haley Downin led all scorers with 18 points, but 13 came in the first half, when the Cougars were digging themselves out of an early hole. Severna Park started fast with early buckets by Jess Albert, Julia Ryan and Lena McLaughlin; the Falcons forced a handful of turnovers; and late in the first quarter Severna Park led 10-0.
The Falcon lead was 12-1 early in the second, and prospects looked grim for the Cougars, who nonetheless responded. Downin swished two 3-pointers in the frame and came up with two of her game-high six steals. When Morgan Gray fed Corinne Castle for a bucket inside with a minute left before halftime, Chesapeake improbably had an 18-17 lead, if only for a hot second. Ryan made one of her five steals and was rewarded on the other end with a basket, and Severna Park led 19-18 at half—Chesapeake’s short-lived advantage was its only lead of the game.
An adjusted Severna Park defensive scheme largely bottled up Downin and the Cougars in the second half, with Albert crowding Downin off the ball and Falcons McLaughlin (11 rebounds), Ryan and Rachel Ward (seven rebounds each) finishing possessions on the glass.
“Haley, she’s tough,” said Dean. “We tried to basically take her out of the game, and we couldn’t. That’s an athlete and what a good player does. Jess did a good job on her in the fourth, and we did a combination of things to be gritty against her.”
Chesapeake was held to 12 points in the second half, Ward stretched the Falcons lead to eight in the fourth quarter with a deep 3-pointer and two free-throws, and Severna Park iced the game with two seconds left on a free throw by McLaughlin to win, 34-30. McLaughlin finished with a team-high eight points and 11 rebounds.
The Falcons got contributions from up and down the roster in improving to 7-3 overall in advance of Friday night’s showdown with Broadneck. Ward (seven points, seven rebounds), Albert (six points, one block), Ryan (four points, seven rebounds, five steals, four assists), Rachel Spilker (three points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals), Campbell Kline (two points, four rebounds), Hailey Betch (two points, two rebounds), Cam Chew (two points, one rebound, one steal), Kelsey Powers (one steal, one block), and Kaila Stasuli all saw action.
Above all, the Falcons won the game on defense. With intensity on the defensive end, Severna Park held Chesapeake to a paltry 8-of-42 shooting (19%), forced 20 turnovers and won the rebounding battle, 41-28. Only Downin (18 points), Castle (six points) and Ashley Chew (six points) scored for the Cougars.
“Chesapeake did a really good job in the second quarter adjusting and showing some different looks, and we seemed to freak out a little before calming ourselves down. From there, it was just fighting for every point you can get,” said Dean. “I love our defense. I think we have phenomenal defense, really. I mean, when we’re holding teams to 30 consistently…we just need to find it on the [offensive] end.”
Coach Gray said the output was atypical for Chesapeake.
“We’ve been averaging over 40 rebounds and over 60 points, so it wasn’t the type of game we’ve been playing,” she said.
The loss for Chesapeake is one result in an otherwise strong season. The Cougars fell to 8-2 but still have reason for optimism for the rest of the winter. They played without starting senior point guard Summer Smith, who is sidelined indefinitely with an ankle injury. Smith had been averaging over nine assists and over nine rebounds through the Cougars’ first nine games, leading the team in both categories.
“Obviously at this point of the season with our starting point guard out, we’re going to have a little growing pain to get through,” said Gray. “We need to learn that you can’t get down and keep fighting back, eventually you’re going to come out on the losing end. Resiliency will help, and we’re having other players step up for our long-term playoff goals. But with Summer out…it’s a tough loss.”
Downin believes that with fellow senior Smith in the lineup, her class would have been going out with a win over Severna Park on their resume.
“Our bench has really stepped it up, and they work really hard in practice, so when they do go out on the floor they know what they’re doing, and we haven’t always had that,” said Downin. “Our starting five works really well together, and with Summer out it’s going to be a little bit different, but I think we’ll pull it together since our bench has been a lot more helpful.”
The Cougars have nonetheless racked up several highlight wins, including a tournament championship over the holidays. Chesapeake won the All About The Girls Holiday Showcase at Wise High School, defeating Dunbar 55-42 and Atholton 54-31. Against Atholton, Downin had 23 points and six steals; Smith had a career-high 17 assists to go with 11 rebounds and six steals; Chew scored 17 points; Castle had nine points and nine rebounds; and Gray had a near-triple-double with eight points, eight rebounds and eight blocks.
Chesapeake also notched the all-important rivalry win over Northeast on January 4 by a score of 60-29. In that contest, Downin scored 15 points and dished out a career-high 10 assists, and she eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for her high school career. Chew scored 15 points against the Eagles and pulled down a career-high 11 rebounds, while Castle scored nine points and had 13 rebounds; Smith had eight points, seven rebounds and four steals; and Morgan Gray added nine rebounds.
With a short bench and only 10 players on the roster, Chesapeake is focused on getting everyone game experience, particularly with Smith out of the lineup. If Severna Park is a thorn, Chesapeake is on the edge of a thicket, with Meade and South River as their next two opponents. The Cougars have Broadneck and Old Mill still to play later in the year, along with out-of-conference opponent Severn and a season-ending rematch with Northeast in the Eagles’ gym.
Coach Gray noted a 54-50 win over Glenelg Country on December 10 as a strong victory, saying the Cougars can learn every time out on the floor.
“Every win can bring something that we learn and grow from,” Gray said. “This is a time for us to develop depth as we move forward. Glenelg Country was a close one, we were down and came back to win 54-50. That helped them to learn when you’re in a tight situation, fight through it, so hopefully that translates to some of the big games down the road.”