When Centennial failed to return senior Audrey Damrongsri's serve for the final time Monday, Mount Hebron celebrated its first win over the Eagles in three years, and volleyball bragging rights shifted from one side of Ellicott City to the other, at least briefly.

The memory of a 3-12 2001 campaign hadn't quite receded when the Vikings stunned defending Maryland 4A champion Broadneck early this season, and it wasn't fully erased when Mount Hebron proved itself to county competition by beating River Hill earlier this month.

But a four-game win over the 10-time Maryland champions wiped away any thoughts of last year's troubles.

With the victory, the Vikings (10-2 overall, 9-2 Howard County) moved closer to reaching the county championship game for the first time since 1998. They are doing so with almost the same roster as last year, an illustration of the delicate and tenuous power of confidence.

"Last year, we definitely had a good team," Damrongsri said. "We had all the team members. We had the skill. But I think it was just our confidence and everything."

With a first-year coach, infighting and bickering, the 2001 Vikings became the school's first losing volleyball team in more than a decade.

The future seemed bleak, even though setter Stacey Carroll was the same poised leader, capable of setting the ball on a tee above the net. Connie Pikounis was still pounding missiles at the 10-foot line, and Julia Boone, Kristin Schields and Damrongsri weren't terribly different players than they are this year.

"They have come to believe that they can play volleyball at a high level," said first-year varsity coach Mike Moynihan, who coached the Vikings' freshman team last year. "They have come to believe that, 'Hey, we are pretty good. We have talent and we have skill.' It's not an arrogant feeling. It's not like we are going to walk into the gym and blow anybody away. But if there is a struggle, they know they can overcome that and press on."

Mount Hebron's volleyball history is rich, at least richer than 3-12 would indicate. The Vikings were county champions in 1998 and won the last of four state championships during the 1990s in 1995.

The Vikings hadn't beaten Centennial since 1999 but were respectable in 2000, going 8-5.

Some players called last year's fall from grace an embarrassment or a disappointment, but they mention the fact that they took Centennial, among other teams, to five games during one of their 12 losses.

But five-game losses don't look any different in the loss column.

Under first-year coach Mark Matthews, the Vikings didn't jell, and despite the same talent that has produced a heartwarming worst-to-first story line, Mount Hebron couldn't win the close games.

"It was so frustrating," Carroll said.

"Coming into this season we knew we had to pick ourselves up and say, 'Hey, we are better than this 3-12 record we got last year,' " Schields said. "We always knew we had it. We have one of the best setters in the county and some of the best hitters and back row players. It basically combined with the Broadneck win."

Close to two months later, things came together again.

"You don't understand what you just did," Moynihan said as he addressed his team after the win Monday over Centennial.

"We have never been in a situation where it's been on the line -- it's either counties or not counties," Carroll said. "It feels great. It shows what we can do. We can come from last year and improve ourselves and be the players we can be."

Added Moynihan: "They broke that stigma. Next year we are losing eight seniors. We have a whole new crew coming in. Now they have a win. They can say, 'Look, we beat Centennial last year.' It's a big step for the program."

Long Reach's Jemime White spikes ball as Vikings' Connie Pikounis goes up.