When Bob Brown was last the head girls basketball coach at Start High School a decade ago, the competitive landscape in the City League was decidedly different.
The CL s three Catholic schools dominated play, most notably Central Catholic, which would begin its run of eight straight City championships under coach Steve Pfahler in 1996-97.
None of the league s seven public-school teams had the necessary talent to seriously contend for the title.
Upon his return this season, Brown who also served three years as a Start boys assistant coach (1997-2000) and two more (2000-02) as the Spartan boys varsity head coach is impressed by what has transpired during his 10 years away from the girls game.
"It s changed unbelievably," he said. "Ten years ago, most of the talent was in the Catholic schools. The public school teams might have had one [top-line] player each if they were lucky."
"Now, the public schools battle with everybody, and the talent level is way up and spread out."
Supporting Brown s observation, Waite has won back-to-back City titles, Bowsher has been a top league contender for several years, Scott has been a CL playoff regular and the Start program he inherited appears to be a title contender this season.
Leading the Spartans are returning junior guards Keaira "Ke-Ke" Marsenburg and Tiara "T.T." Arnold, and 6-1 sophomore post player Yolanda "Yo-Yo" Richardson, a transfer from Woodward.
The Spartans are off to a 6-2 Start, including a 3-1 mark in CL play. Their league loss came against two-time defending champion Waite (71-65) in a game Start led most of the way until the closing minute. Their nonleague loss came last Saturday, a 48-46 setback at Oak Harbor.
"We ve said from day one that our aim is the final four [CL playoffs], and possibly the City championship," said Brown, who also served as a varsity assistant coach at St. John s Jesuit, working with teams that made the state semifinals in 2003 and finished as state runner-up in 2004.
"Coming from St. John s, one thing I learned was that a game like that [the Start-Waite girls game] was just battle No. 1 of hopefully three, meaning the City championship and maybe in the district somewhere. In the big picture, we want to win in February.
"I think we got a little taste of what it s like and how hard it is to win the big games."
The Spartans first task was putting last year s underachieving 10-9 finish behind them. Marsenburg admits that jealousy among teammates undermined Start s chances for success last season.
The flashy 5-6 junior guard, who leads Start in scoring at 19.6 points per game, says those troubles are behind the Spartans this year.
"I don t think we re that much better [individually] this year," Marsenburg said, "we re just more together. We know what we have to do. Everybody knows their roles. We re not selfish like we were last year.
"This year we came out together. We have to stick together and play as a team in order to win."
Richardson is delighted to have transplanted her game from Woodward, which did not win a varsity game last season. She spent some time on the varsity, but was also purposely kept at the freshman level for much of the season to help the Polar Bears win the CL freshman championship.
Richardson, a quick and strong presence in the post, is contributing in a major way on the Start varsity. She is averaging 13.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 8.7 blocked shots per game.
"It s exciting knowing that I have somebody who can pass me the ball and we can make plays and play defense like we should," Richardson said of her new team. "I really believe strongly that we have a chance [at winning CL title]. I have a good feeling about this.
"That was exciting, playing against Waite. We stayed with them and we were ready. When we got on the court, we weren t nervous. We all just played our game."
Arnold, who is averaging just under 10 points per contest, is most valuable to Start at the defensive end, according to Brown, who labels the 5-4 guard as Start s stopper.
"We ve improved a lot," Arnold said. "This year we play a lot of team ball. We ve got good chemistry, and we re very confident.
"The coaches are doing a good job by staying on us and keeping us focused. [Coach Brown] has just taught us that hard work pays off."
The Spartans next big test comes in their first game after the holiday break, a Jan. 10 league showdown at home with currently unbeaten Notre Dame Academy (7-0, 4-0).
Adding significance to that game, Brown and Notre Dame head coach Rhett Boyd are good friends and former roommates.
Marsenburg, Richardson, and Arnold agree that, even though Waite rallied to beat them, that game still had a positive impact on the Spartans.
"That game boosted our confidence up a lot," Arnold said. "We learned from our mistakes, and things like that only make you better and make you work harder. The next time you play them you ll have a different perspective about the game.
"We re very confident because we know we could ve beat them that night."