Ten years ago, in Dave Greenberg's first season as Mount Hebron's girls basketball coach, a Howard County newspaper picked the Vikings to finish last in the league.

After all, Mount Hebron's team consisted of one senior and a group of underclassmen whose talents were unknown. And Greenberg, also the school's head football coach, not only had never previously coached basketball, he originally had little inclination to take over a girls team.

Greenberg however, received the assistance he needed and he developed a bond with his players that made the transition from coaching football to coaching girls basketball that much smoother.

"I had turned the principal down a couple of times, but I loved the girls and I said I would do it if Chuck Monninger {the boys coach until this past season} would work with me," said Greenberg, who has been the Vikings football coach for 15 years. "I just wanted him to help me understand the system and how the practice session goes."

Greenberg and the girls basketball team had a merry beginning, as Mount Hebron posted a 12-2 record and easily won the county title.

Since then, they have won eight county, five regional and three Maryland Class B state titles and have been annually pointed to as the team to beat. This season, the Vikings won their first nine games and entered the week ranked No. 6 in the Washington area.

They have succeeded mainly with pressure defense and quickness on offense to amass a 178-42 record.

"We live and die with defense," said Greenberg. "We go over several defenses in practice. We feel that if you can't score, then you can't beat us. There will be days when we will struggle to score, but if you can't, then we will still be in the ball game."

Over the previous nine years, the Vikings, who have won two consecutive state titles, had not been able to win the IAABO tournament, which usually features the area's premier teams. This season, though, they defeated Largo, 54-31, to win the one title that had eluded them.

With the convincing victory against a more physical team, the Vikings won the respect of many.

"It was really satisfying for us after watching everyone else win all those years," said Greenberg. "I consider it a very prestigious tournament because the teams are always good. For us to win it is great for us and great for our county."

The victory might have been sweetest to Greenberg and to star senior players Justine Chaverini and Amy Mallon.

Chaverini, averaging 14.1 points and Mallon (13.6), both are on the school's top 10 all-time scorers list. The past three seasons, the Vikings have been led by Chaverini's deft drives to the basket and Mallon's ability to make jump shots and battle for rebounds.

At the end of the season their jerseys may be retired. The school has retired the jerseys of five other girls players.

"Just to know that you have accomplished that much makes you feel good because people will remember you," said Mallon, who has been playing basketball since third grade.

Chaverini said the possibility of having her jersey retired is something she has often thought about.

"It's a great honor," she said. "It was always a goal for me to get my jersey up on the wall when I graduate."

Now that they've won IAABO, Chaverini and Mallon have one more team goal left to accomplish, and that's to win a third consecutive state title.

This season most observers expect the Vikings to repeat as state champions, so the pressure will be on them all season.

"There is a lot of pressure on us this year because we are supposed to win it," said Mallon. "The last two years we weren't supposed to win it, but hopefully, that pressure won't get to us that much and we will play that much harder."

Said Chaverini, "Our goal is to finish the season undefeated. I think now that we have gotten by the IAABO that we have a chance to go undefeated.

"Last year, we could have gone undefeated but we lost a couple of games in the IAABO. Now that we have won it I really think that we have a great chance to go undefeated."

In practice each day the Vikings run several sprint drills until they are nearly exhausted. The practice sessions are patterned after workouts used by Indiana Coach Bobby Knights.

For example, in preparation for a game with their toughest regular-season opponent, Dulaney of Baltimore, the Vikings went through intense planning. Dulaney had a considerably taller lineup, with 6-foot-3 center Trisha Elser posing a threat in the middle.

The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 8, but was postponed due to snow until Jan. 11. The day before the game, the Vikings began concentrating more seriously. At 4:25 p.m. the team gathered in a small conference room in the guidance office to watch a videotape of a Knight practice. Mallon, with a sedate face, was casually dressed, wearing a jeans jacket. Most of the girls were in shorts or sweat pants.

Soon the videotape ended and the girls trotted down the hall to the Vikings' gymnasium. Several bright yellow lights were shining and the wrestlers were running around in the back of the gym in the wrestling cage. On one side of the gym was the boys hall of fame where five retired boys jerseys hang. On the other side, the five girls jerseys vividly stood out.

The opening minutes of practice were spirited, but soon the sprints and "suicide" drills exhausted and frustrated the players.

One player persistently forgot to touch one of the black lines during the runs and during a break, Greenberg had a word with her. The girl apologized, but Greenberg yelled, "Don't be sorry, just do it." The rest of the practice, thus, became more fervent, as the smiles disappeared and the sweat increased on the faces of players.

The final 15 minutes were spent running plays to stop Elser. To be sure that they were ready, two boys from the junior varsity team were brought in. One was exactly 6-3 and the other was assigned the task of imitating Dulaney point guard Amy Green.

Mallon guarded the taller boy and for most of the remaining 15 minutes. She barely allowed him to touch the ball and when he did, her defensive stance stiffened. The smaller boy occasionally scored from the outside, but Chaverini and a horde of other Vikings players soon took his shot away.

Almost out of breath, the Vikings kept working hard until the end of practice.

On game day, the preparation paid off as Mount Hebron remained unbeaten, pulling away from Dulaney for a comforting 62-55 victory before a capacity crowd of 750. Mallon, who scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, limited Elser to an undominating 18 points.

Chaverini and Mallon led the way over Dulaney, but it takes five players to keep a program successful and the Vikings, who have won 26 of their last 27 games, have other players that contribute just as heavily, even though their skills and point production don't equal Chaverini's and Mallon's.

Senior guard Valerie Beltram is the heart of the team's defense and co-captain Alison McIntyre averages eight points a game, many in clutch situations. Lisa Day, a 5-9 junior, may be Mount Hebron's hardest worker.

"If everyone else worked as hard as she does," Greenberg sads of Day. "Then we would be great."

But it is the academic well-being of his players that gives Greenberg the most satisfaction.

"I like to win, but I get the most pleasure out of getting these kids into college," Greenberg says. "Seven of our graduates are captains or have been captains of their college teams.

"We have a kid {Carla Kelly, who graduated in 1986} at Cornell right now who is a sophomore and is captain of her team. We've only had one kid who went to college did not graduate. We pride ourself in success after high school."

The combination of success in the classroom and on the basketball court is what the players relish most, Greenberg said.

"I think that our kids tend to really believe in what we do," he said. "They start to say, 'Well if I play hard and do what the coach asks me to do, then some good things will come out of it.' "