At practice last week, Mount Hebron's volleyball team reviewed its 25-12, 25-17, 25-23 season-opening victory over Old Mill.

The Vikings dominated the match from the outset, with senior hitters Maggie Serkes, Alex McClammer, Leanne Fieldhouse and Connie Pikounis pounding 32 kills and a school-record 23 blocks. But the topic of conversation was a number not listed in the game book: two.

That's how many times the ball hit the ground on Mount Hebron's side of the net without a player getting a hand on it, a major accomplishment for a squad whose weak defense last season overshadowed a prolific offense.

"Now, I actually think we're going to play defense this year," Coach Mike Moynihan said. "Last year, we would hit balls that were going out and not hit balls that were in, and for whatever reason, we didn't have girls who would dive on the floor to get a ball. Our defense was a big reason why we didn't reach any of our goals last year."

The standards are again high at Mount Hebron. The Vikings no longer resemble the team that finished 3-12 in 2001. They reached the state tournament in 2002 and last year finished 13-5 and advanced to the 3A East Region.

Moynihan felt his team struggled last fall against top teams, such as Centennial and county champion Glenelg, because of inexperience. The Vikings had rallied around four, first-year varsity starters -- their slogan was "New Year, New Team, Let's Make It Happen" -- but never found cohesion on the court.

"Last year, since we did not have a lot of experience together we weren't really able to run set plays, and we did some stupid things out there," McClammer said. "But we saw that we had potential, so now we should be good, and I think we saw that right away in the way we played against Old Mill. We have a lot of players back from last year, and that's going to make a big difference for us."

The biggest change from last year is at setter, where the duo of sophomore Anna Wiggs and junior Courtney Robson replace two-time All-County setter Stacey Carroll. But having two setters also gives the Vikings more options offensively, since they will no longer channel their attack through one player.

"Stacey was a great setter for them, but the biggest thing for Mount Hebron is that they have stability because Mike [Moynihan] has come in and installed a system, and now they really know it and they believe in it," Centennial Coach Mike Bossom said. "Mount Hebron always has great athletes come through, and when you have players coming back, you are going to start the season ahead of where you were last year."

Mount Hebron, which has not won a county title since 1998, hopes it has made up enough ground to catch Glenelg and Centennial, which both return several key players. Glenelg, which entered the week having lost just one match in two years, returns All-County hitter Rebecca Tursell and junior outside hitter Julie Hollrah. Centennial, which defeated Mount Hebron in last season's 3A East Region tournament to earn its seventh berth in the state tournament in eight years, returns All-County hitter Margot Phelan, along with junior setter Jennifer Feldmann.

"C.R.S.: that stands for county, region, states, and we want to win all three this year," Pikounis said. "We say that [abbreviation] all the time to each other, even when we see each other in class. . . . It's kind of shocking to see how much better we are now than during my freshman year, but right now, I don't see a goal that we can't reach."

The ball doesn't hit the ground much when Mount Hebron is playing defense these days. The team worked on that part of the game after a 13-5 finish last year. Mount Hebron's hitters, including Connie Pikounis, above, have little trouble with their offense: They combined for 32 kills in a victory last week.