With its 2-0 victory over Wilde Lake on Friday, the Mount Hebron field hockey team claimed its second county championship in three years and fourth in the past decade after going 9-1 in league play. And perhaps the best part of winning it was that the Vikings could celebrate at home -- finally.
For two seasons before this fall, Mount Hebron played all its games on the road while a new Bermuda grass hockey field was being constructed adjacent to the school.
Finally, on Sept. 17, Mount Hebron played its first official home game since 2001, taking on Centennial. Junior Lauren Sterner scored off a pass from senior Emily Karrer in overtime for a 2-1 victory, and the Vikings haven't looked back. They've won every game on their smooth field -- where passes now arrive at their intended destination instead of bumping awry -- and allowed only two goals at home this fall.
"Such a difference," beamed junior forward Sarah Cates, who has six goals and four assists and teams with seniors Karrer (right wing) and Ashley Francis (center midfielder) to form the nucleus of the offense. "The feeling of 'home field advantage' is the best feeling ever for a sports team. It's a lot of fun to be able to play on your home turf."
All told, Mount Hebron has allowed only three goals in the past eight games -- and scored 32. That bodes well for today's 3A South quarterfinal. The second-seeded Vikings host Wilde Lake at 3:30.
At practice on Monday, Mount Hebron ran of multitude of passing and dribbling drills under the direction of 15-year head coach Jeannette Ireland. Two-on-none breakaways at the goalie. Weaving through cones. Shooter-on-goalie, seven-yard penalty strokes (which are important because, after two overtimes, these are used to decide playoff games).
The Vikings will need to capitalize on whatever scoring opportunities arise against Wilde Lake: Wildecats goalie Gaby Schrier made 27 saves in their meeting this past Friday. But Ireland loves the makeup of her team.
"Their ability to create [goal-scoring plays]," said Ireland, when asked what drives this squad. "This is one of the best passing teams I've had. There's no question the new field has done wonders for us."
If Mount Hebron should get by Wilde Lake today, the team would play the winner of Annapolis-Long Reach next week. And a victory in that game would set up -- barring a shocking upset -- a 3A South Region title game against the Washington area's most dominant club, Severna Park (15-0).
"Severna Park is an outstanding program," said Ireland. "But I feel anything can happen in hockey."
Success in the postseason could come down to the how sharp senior goalie Kristina Schweizer is amid a scrum of swinging sticks. At Monday's practice, mud covered her uniform from chest to toe -- she still hadn't washed it from Friday's shutout of Wilde Lake. As players practiced penalty strokes on Schweizer, she made one great save after another, and with each save the field players had to sprint to the opposite goal and back.
"I can't let a goal in," she boasted, and then invented a new word. "It's just my 'goalieness.' "
Another key for Mount Hebron in the playoffs will be forwards Sterner and Christine Tamburello, who are adept at tipping in goals or cleaning up rebounds and putting them past the opposing keeper. Each has a team-best 12 goals this season.
"I just try to stay focused and not let the pressure [to score a goal] get to me," said Tamburello, "because if I let that happen I'm going to kind of break down. I just handle the situation how it comes."