A bevy of sophomores filled the roster and logged plenty of minutes for the Burlington High School girls basketball team last season, a risky move that led to a 7-14 record and a first-round playoff exit.
"It was a hard decision," Burlington's 16-year coach Doug Cheeseman said. "OK, we loaded our varsity with seven sophomores and that really puts a clog in your program."
While Burlington's youth movement had its moments last year -- the Seahorses ended Division I finalist Champlain Valley's unbeaten start -- the real payoff has started to take form this winter.
Behind Kaitlin Garrison, Georgia Black, Ilona Maher, Breanna Pidgeon and Sha'Kylah Morris -- all sophomores who gained valuable varsity minutes last year -- the Seahorses are loaded with athletic and strong players, ready to prove they are one of the contending teams in Division I and the parity-filled Metro League.
Add in the leadership and calming presence of Olivia Maher, the team's lone senior, and the Seahorses have surged to a 6-1 record.
"The real big step is the mental maturity, that was a hurdle last year," Cheeseman said. "They tried not to lose and this year they are going out there to win. That's the real big thing.
"They are taking care of the process. ... They are dialed in," Cheeseman said.
Team cohesiveness has also played a role, Garrison said.
"Our team chemistry is what is really helping us," said Garrison, who, along with Black, made the varsity squad as freshmen. "We just know each other and we feel more comfortable with each other."
That bond might explain the team's balanced scoring -- "Every night it's a different high scorer," Cheeseman said -- and tenacity displayed on the defensive end of the floor. The Seahorses are limited opponents to 34.7 points per game; in their loss they allowed 41 to South Burlington.
"Defensively, we like to be as active as possible. We like to talk and be able to help each other out and do the best we can," said Olivia Maher, who added the team's collection of multi-sport players is vital to their defensive pressure.
Cheeseman said winning in the Metro boils down to a team's mettle.
"It's such a fine line and I think it's all about effort. A team that comes out with the most effort 9 of 10 times usually wins," Cheeseman said. "We can run the floor, we can get out and defend and we can rebound."
The Seahorses' early success will be tested tonight against Essex, the start of a four-game stretch that also includes CVU, Spaulding and Rice.
"If we win (tonight), it will tell people we are a threat," Garrison said. "This will definitely help us to understand what we need to work on and to what we need to improve on."