Mount Hebron junior Zach Barnett spends a week every summer traveling out of state, putting aside soccer balls for a hammer and saw to help his church youth group repair homes for the underprivileged.

While he repairs porches and roofs, Barnett is removed briefly from a life that revolves around high-level soccer. When he's at home, he plays for his high school and for the Baltimore Bays of the Super Y league, a team that won the Maryland State Cup in the under-16 division. He recently was named to the league's national team.

"All I pretty much do is play sports all the time, so this gives me a chance to get away," said Barnett, who went to Pittsburgh with the church group last month. "I like helping people out and building things."

Since his return from Pennsylvania, Barnett has started his latest rebuilding project -- on the soccer field. He's trying to solidify a high school team that needs plenty of work if it's going to challenge River Hill, the three-time defending 3A state champion.

Barnett, one of the county's top sweepers last year, will play center midfielder and be counted on to fill the void left by graduate Eric Shadoff (10 goals, seven assists), who is now playing for the University of Delaware. Barnett, who contributed eight assists, most off long throw-ins, has improved his all-around game during the offseason, which should make one of the county's fastest players one of the best.

"He just plays the game so naturally," Vikings Coach Mike Linsenmeyer said. "Zach's competitiveness really sets him apart. I think he motivates the other guys because he wants to win every drill in practice and you can see him get upset if he doesn't win."

Barnett -- along with returning midfielders Chris Franczkowski (five goals, nine assists) and Justin Martinelli (10 goals, three assists), forward Mike Napolitano and goalie Ryan Kreh has the team in position to contend for its first 3A East Region title.

But talking about success beyond the regular season is a touchy subject at Mount Hebron. Franczkowski, a senior, shook his head when asked about the postseason because each year his team has entered the playoffs with high hopes, only to have its season ended by River Hill.

"I've lost nine games at Mount Hebron since I got here and six have been to River Hill," said Franczkowski, whose team has been eliminated by the Hawks in the past three 3A East Region tournaments. "Hopefully, it's our year now because every year our seniors say how this year is our year, and it ends up not being it. I thought we were going to beat River Hill last year, and look what happened."

In the 3A East Region semifinals, the Vikings took a 1-0 lead in the 55th minute -- their first lead against the Hawks since 2000 -- only to watch River Hill's Mike Walter counter with two goals to pull out a 2-1 win.

"There are times when I just think how many state titles we'd have if we were a 2A or a 1A school and didn't have to play River Hill," Linsenmeyer said. "But the reality is if we want to accomplish any of our goals, we have to beat River Hill. And right now, with as much improvement as we need to show, I don't want to even look ahead to playing River Hill."

River Hill Coach Bill Stara said it will be interesting to see what happens this year since the league returns just two players -- Martinelli and Atholton's Tim Breen (seven goals, eight assists) -- who scored seven or more goals last year. Three All-County players who combined for 17 goals and 15 assists graduated from River Hill, along with All-Met sweeper Brian Chun.

"You look at the county right now, and I don't know who the best team is because the county lost so many good players from last year," Stara said. "Right now, you have a lot of players who are pretty good, but no dominant ones. Mount Hebron has always played us tough, so you can't count them out. I know we have a lot of work to do and some changes to make, and so does Mount Hebron, so I guess we'll have to wait until the end of the season to see who made the most progress."

Vikings Coach Mike Linsenmeyer says junior midfielder Zach Barnett, with ball, plays the game "naturally."Mount Hebron's Justin Martinelli had 10 goals last season. He is one of two returning county players who scored seven or more goals in 2004.