Youth is not typically a plus for field hockey teams, but don't tell that to Mount Hebron and Glenelg.

Arguably the top two field hockey teams in the county, the Vikings and Gladiators are also among the youngest in a sport where it often takes time to learn rules and stick skills. Mount Hebron (9-1-2 overall, 8-0-1 Howard County) starts sophomore Kristina Schweizer in goal, and forward Sarah Cates is the first freshman to ever make the varsity team under Coach Jeannette Ireland. The Gladiators (10-0-3, 6-0-3) have earned respect and wins while starting six sophomores.

"We wouldn't be here without them; we wouldn't have enough players," Ireland said. "They've really been huge. My sophomore goalkeeper had never played on varsity before, and she did a lot over the summer, and I told her at the end of the season, 'I am looking for you on varsity and I need you to do this, this and this,' and she really did."

The same can be said for Cates and sophomores Emily Karrer, Robyn Jackson and Ashley Francis, as the underclassmen have been a perfect complement to the senior leadership of forwards Ali Lemons, Emily Goldman and Maria Bosica.

"They have really stepped up," Lemons said. "That's what we were so worried about. We didn't know what was going to happen from last year. We had so many positions to fill. . . . We were worried at first, but they really stepped up. I think they feel comfortable around us older people."

Few Mount Hebron players are year-round field hockey addicts, but the same is not true at Glenelg. The Gladiators' sophomores play like seniors because they have been playing since middle school.

"They had the opportunity to play in middle school, when kids that are fairly decent athletes are looking around for stuff to do. If they don't find it in field hockey, they find it elsewhere. We were missing that caliber of athlete for a while."

However, when club-level field hockey came to western Howard County, first with the Hericanes and then with the Lady Bells, players such as Amanda Yanulevich, Terri Coover, Jenn Cochran, Katie Narron, Carly Barron and Aly Blum were quick to catch on.

The six sophomores were the first players ever to make varsity for Kincaid, and with a season of experience under their belts have been integral to Glenelg's success this year. Yanulevich leads the Gladiators with seven goals, while Blum has made 33 saves and has allowed only one goal all year. Senior Stephanie Capps has six goals and three assists.

"We are starting to see all the growth from the outreach of all these youth leagues," Kincaid said. "I think that we have a long tradition of doing well in field hockey, and I think we would still be a decent program. I just think it would be different, that's all."

That doesn't mean she doesn't think the Gladiators would be doing any worse this year, but if Glenelg is to have any luck trying to undo the county's poor reputation in the postseason, the underclassmen will surely have to step up.

County teams have qualified for the state semifinals 29 times, but only once has a county team won a state title (Centennial in 1995). Last year, Mount Hebron advanced to the state final and lost to Fallston, 1-0, becoming the eighth team in county history to reach the pinnacle of success, only to fall short.

Like the Gladiators, the Vikings are looking to reverse that trend and have added credibility with their first county championship since 1997.

"Last year, it was kind of like, 'What are we doing here? How did we get here? What happened?' " Goldman said. "I think when it comes down to it, a team can really pull it together. This year we pulled together from the preseason."

"I remember losing like it was yesterday," said Bosica, who is second on the team to Lemons with 10 goals and five assists. "And that's our goal this year. We started this year saying we are not going to fail. We worked so hard last year. We are not going to let that happen again. When we go to states this time, we are going to make it count."

Lemons doesn't remember much of last year's postseason, because she played sparingly in the playoffs and championship game loss to Fallston. She needed 40 stitches to repair a cut on her face suffered in an early-season game against Garrison Forest, but she has returned with a vengeance this season, scoring a team-high 13 goals to go along with eight assists.

"Am I scared now? No. At first I was a little timid, but now it's no big deal," Lemons said. "I can't wait for the playoffs to start now."

She will get her chance today.

Mount Hebron opens play against Wilde Lake in a Maryland 3A East Region quarterfinal. Glenelg was slated to play the winner of the Walkersville-Atholton game in a 2A West quarterfinal.

Mount Hebron's Ali Lemons stretches out to steal ball from Wilde Lake's Nicole Arkin. Last year, Mount Hebron advanced to the state final but lost to Fallston.Mount Hebron Coach Jeannette Ireland, center, has tapped a freshman and a sophomore for her starting lineup.Mount Hebron goaltender Marie Bounds makes like a gymnast to stop Wilde Lake's Jill Rourke (17) and Brenda Gonzales. The Vikings' Noelle Hopper backs up her teammate in the defensive battle.Maria Bosica has 10 goals and five assists for Mount Hebron this season.