WYE MILLS - As hard as it may be to believe, it wasn't that long ago that just finishing the season was a goal for Chesapeake College's women's basketball program.
Damon Nichols' first season as a collegiate head coach ended abruptly in 2010 when not enough players were academically eligible after the fall semester to keep the team afloat. That's why one of his team goals for last season was just to play out the schedule.
"I'm not ashamed to tell them (recruits) about our first year and not finishing the season," said Nichols. "Going into that second year, it was all about education - making sure we got our grades. These kids bought into that.
"So that was our first goal last year - finishing the season," recalled Nichols. "We also wanted to win a first-round playoff game so we could go to the Final Eight and see what that experience was like."
Last season's Skipjacks met their initial goals of finishing the season and winning a playoff game. Their reward was a state quarterfinal matchup against eventual champion Allegany College of Maryland, with the Trojans crushing Chesapeake, 79-44.
Fast-forward a year. Chesapeake once again met Allegany in the state tournament, but this time it was in the finals and it was the Skipjacks earning a 75-66 victory for the program's first-ever state championship.
"I think the sophomores that I have now, they saw what it took to actually get there and really compete," said Nichols, "and I think they may have talked to the freshmen and let them know."
Nichols said the lessons he learned from the program's abbreviated 2009-10 season were the initial building blocks for this year's 21-3 state championship campaign.
"I learned that I needed to look carefully for a student athlete - not someone who was an athlete first," said Nichols.
"After that first season, when I was looking at recruits I went in and talked with their high school coaches, talked with their guidance counselors and looked to see how strong they were academically," said Nichols. "That first year, I didn't have much time to recruit - I had to go out and get what I could get. The last two years, I think I've gotten an academically sound group of kids
"These kids bought into that," said Nichols. "I think this year's team had that (the failed 2010 season) in the back of their minds. They didn't want to come here and not have a second half to the season."
While the priority on academics played a key role in building this season's successes, it certainly didn't hurt that Nichols' recruits were also pretty good players. And this year's three returning sophomores all made key contributions in Sunday's title game.
Ashleigh Jones, who made all-state and all-region teams as a freshman, was selected as this year's state tournament MVP after scoring a game-high 26 points in the finals. Jen Carr, who has always done a little bit of everything for the Skipjacks, shot 3-for-3 from the field and 3-for-4 from the line while scoring nine points and pulling down seven rebounds in the title game. And point guard Deja Acree (North Caroline High) played 32 minutes in the finals without a single turnover.
"I told the sophomores, 'This is your chance'," said Nichols. "I told the whole team, 'Some of you guys never made it to a championship game, let alone won one. This is your chance to get it done.' "
"They made the commitment to Coach Nichols, to the college, to the program," Athletic Director Frank Szymanski said of the sophomores. "They enjoyed a little success down the stretch last year and wanted to build on it. All three worked extremely hard and showed a true commitment in the offseason."
After last year's 9-17 campaign, Nichols set out to augment his trio of returning sophomores with a strong freshman class. He certainly accomplished that goal. Denver Clyde was a regular double-double for the Skipjacks, averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game, while Rose Smith (7.2 points, 5.5 rebounds) played a key inside role. Emon Heath and Katara Pressley added depth off the bench.
Szymanski said he began to feel like this could be a special team even before official preseason workouts began.
"Coach Nichols was assistant volleyball coach this year, so he couldn't always be with the girls when they were doing their preseason workouts," said Szymanski. "When I saw the girls running and lifting on their own without him watching, that's when I got a real good feel for the kind of girls he had brought into the program."
Shantrel Oliver, who transferred into Chesapeake last fall but was not eligible until January, further solidified the team. She made a dramatic entrance, scoring a game-high 28 points in her debut as the Skipjacks notched a 73-56 win at Cecil College. Oliver has averaged nearly 18 points and three steals per game since becoming eligible.
"When I was putting it together piece by piece, I saw that I had everything we needed to compete in this league," said Nichols. "When we started practicing, I could see this could be a very special season."
Szymanski said Oliver proved to be the final piece of the puzzle.
"She worked all preseason with the rest of the girls," said Szymanski. "For her to come in and accept her role, play within the system that coach had developed, that was a credit to her. It takes a special player to do that."
Szymanski said Nichols - a player at Chesapeake College in the mid-1990s and an assistant men's basketball coach under John Mappas when the Skipjacks won the 2008 region title - worked hard to develop into a title-winning coach.
"He really paid his dues, learned the game and how to coach, how to communicate with players, and how to recruit," said Szymanski.
"Coaching is a passion for me, and I like to give back the knowledge of the game that I know I've been taught by other coaches," said Nichols. "I was fortunate to work with a great coach and mentor in Coach Mappas. When Frank came to me and asked me if I would like to take over the women's program, I knew I had to do it. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, but I knew I'd do the best I could."
Nichols said all that the Skipjacks have accomplished hasn't really sunk in yet, particularly with the NJCAA Division II Region XX tournament - and an automatic berth to nationals if the Skipjacks win it - still on the horizon.
"I guess it will hit me some time," said Nichols. "Right now, there are still goals left that we want to achieve. I take my hat off to those girls. They chose to come to Chesapeake College, and I hope this season will open the door to get more great student athletes to come here."