NEWPORT NEWS — The losses keep coming, most by margins of greater than 50 points. But when you're the head coach of a winless basketball team whose character and perseverance far outweigh its talent level, you stress the small victories.
Like three that came Friday night against Gloucester, for example. The Denbigh girls lost again, but the final score was 51-21. And Patriots coach Earl Hester pointed out to his players that ...
*The 30-point margin was the smallest of the season.
*The Dukes had beaten them by 57 four weeks earlier.
*For only the second time all season, they outscored an opponent for a quarter (10-7 in the third).
OK, none of the above call for a parade down Denbigh Blvd. But for a program that has lost 21 straight games dating back to last season, small victories mean something.
"I always talk family, and with family you go through hard times," Hester said. "You always keep battling for family. Out of our six varsity players, four have never played before. And to compete in this district, that's kind of tough. It takes experience.
"This is a great bunch of kids. They have such great character. They have to have persevered to done what they've done this year. I can't say enough about them."
Ditto assistant Shelly Jackson.
"I've been coaching a long time," Jackson said. "This is one of the more pleasurable seasons I can remember."
Denbigh is 0-18 overall, 0-15 in the district. The average losing margin is 49 points. Five times this season, the Patriots have lost by at least 70. Seven times, they scored 12 points or less.
"It's difficult at times, but we always come back and try harder to get a win," senior guard Chaz Bradford said. "We have that motivation."
The attitude in practice and on game nights remains positive. Of course, there is always the occasional hallway critic.
"You start to feed off the negativity," junior guard Vontisha Redmond said. "It gives you motivation to come out and show people otherwise."
Whatever it is — love of the game, mental fortitude, a desire to prove the doubters wrong — they show up every day. And they go into every game trying to win, even if all logic tells them it won't happen.
"It would be easy for them to quit," Denbigh athletic director Bryan Weaver said. "But they don't, and the question is why. The answer is that they believe in what they see in front of them. These girls have great moral fiber.
"The fact that Earl is so passionate helps. What's the old cliché? They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Earl spends a lot of time with them showing he cares."
It's a small but tight group. Along with Jackson, who is also the JV coach, Hester has former William and Mary player Jalen Boone as an assistant. Together, the coaches and team spend time together off the court. Thursday night, they went to Norfolk to watch Old Dominion beat Drexel.
Hester, a former assistant and JV coach at Warwick under Ben Moore, is Denbigh's fourth different coach in four years. He guarantees there won't be a fifth in five.
"Just last night, I had a couple of young ladies, two juniors, ask me on the bus if I was coming back next year," he said. "And I told them, 'Ladies, my youngest daughter is in the 3rd grade. I'm going to be here until she graduates, if not longer.'"
Last year, in Jimmie Gerald's one season as head coach, the Patriots went 2-16. They had a legitimate scoring threat in Taj Baldwin, a transfer from Florida who averaged 19.5 points a game — nearly 57 percent of the team's total. But she graduated — she now plays at the University of the District of Columbia — leaving the cupboard just about empty.
Hester was hired in July. For the first workout he scheduled, four of the 505 female students enrolled at Denbigh showed up. For the first official day of practice in October, 12 came out. That's for both varsity and JV, and even that took some work.
"I happened to be at a rec league tryout, and there was this young lady there," Hester said. "I found out she went to Passage Middle School, which feeds this school. I told her, 'Well, if you want to play high school ball, I've got a spot for you.' The next day, she was here. She's on the JV team now.
"I've got another kid out there who was the manager with the boys' team. Today's her first day out here. She wants to give it a shot."
Of the six players on varsity (eight are on JV), only Redmond and Bradford played last season. Redmond is the Patriots' top scorer at 8.2 points a game; Bradford is next at 3.4 ppg. Together, account for 60 percent of Denbigh's offense.
Most on the team are like Jessica Kaewnork, a junior who literally could not make a layup in August. But she's scored 15 points this season and is the team's most improved player.
"It's been a great experience and I've learned a lot," she said. "I'm thankful to be playing on a team."
Yet tradition is a hard thing to overcome. Denbigh's last winning season came in 1997-98, when Wanda Marinke coached the Patriots to records of 14-6 overall, 13-5 in the PD.
Since then, Denbigh has had 15 consecutive losing seasons. That's the longest current drought in the Peninsula District.
But there's always hope. Kecoughtan went into the weekend with 17 wins and tied for first place in the district standings. Four years ago, the Warriors finished 1-20 and didn't have enough girls in the program for a JV team.
"We've had 15 years of losing seasons, and that won't change overnight," Weaver said. "It's a process. It'll take one season at a time and the girls understanding what we're doing."
As for now, even with loss after loss, there's the thrill of competing. And small victories.