Mount Hebron High School's march to the Class 2A state volleyball tournament was a bit more predictable this year.
Unlike last fall, when the Vikings surprised observers and even themselves by winning the Class 2A Region II tournament to advance to the state playoffs, Hebron entered this season knowing it had good reason to expect a return trip.
Friday night the top-seeded, homestanding Vikings earned their wish by beating pesky Loch Raven (Baltimore County), 15-9, 8-15, 15-11, 15-9, to take their second straight Region II crown.
Hebron, which won its ninth consecutive match to improve its record to 16-1, advanced to the 2A semifinals Wednesday at Centennial High School against an opponent yet to be determined. A victory there would put the Vikings in Saturday's state final at Catonsville Community College.
"Last year we kind of shocked people by getting to the states," recalled senior setter Melissa Murdza, who has been instrumental all year in Hebron's best-ever season.
Murdza was part of the Hebron team that wound up third in the state's final round-robin championship tournament last year, when the Sherry Orlosky-led Atholton Raiders, as expected, won their second straight title.
"This year it's a little different," Murdza said. "This time we want it."
The Vikings certainly in the last week have looked good and hungry enough to bring home a state championship. They rallied from an 8-2 deficit to hand Centennial a dramatic fifth-game loss nine days ago to win the county title. Then, they easily disposed of overmatched Patapsco (Baltimore County) in three games in Wednesday's regional semifinal.
Friday night the Vikings' potent power game wasn't quite as sharp as in their previous two matches, but they wore down Loch Raven (11-2) -- and overcame a superb match by Raiders hitter Wendy Binje -- with good defense, solid serving and an all-around, workmanlike performance.
"Nobody really played a great match for us tonight, but I like the fact that we used a lot of people," said Hebron coach Jeannine McCrumb. "They basically had one girl who was their offense. We had five or six people doing their part."
Andrea Day and Tracy Porter led the Vikings with eight kills apiece.
Brooke Christopher had six kills. Cescili Drake had five. Jen Dohler had four. The Vikings also collected 16 aces, including five by Drake and four by Murdza.
That "one girl" to whom McCrumb was referring -- the 5-foot-10 Binje -- gave Hebron fits with a match-high 12 kills and a topspin-heavy serve that produced six aces. Binje bothered the Vikings most in the second game, when she singlehandedly got Loch Raven back into the match with four aces and four kills in the Raiders' only victorious game.
But after losing the second game, Hebron regrouped to wear down the Raiders in a grueling third game, in which the Vikings spotted Loch Raven an 8-5 lead. Ten side outs and three points later, Hebron pulled even at 8-8 on an ace by Day, then took the lead on a kill by Christopher.
The Vikings finished off the crucial 15-11 victory with Porter's ace and Drake's game-winning dink off a perfect set by Murdza.
In game four, Hebron spotted Loch Raven a 3-0 lead but stormed back quickly to tie it, then took a 6-3 lead. The closest Loch Raven would get after that was 10-9. Then, with Murdza serving, Hebron ran off five unanswered points -- the final two on kills by Christopher -- to wrap up the title.
The Vikings found out early that Loch Raven would not be the pushover Patapsco was two nights earlier. The opening game featured six tie scores, and neither team led by more than a point until Hebron put together a decisive four-point run.
With the scored deadlocked at 7-7, Murdza started the sequence with a diving one-handed save. Porter finished it with a kill to give Hebron an 8-7 lead. Day then turned a Murdza set into a 9-7 advantage, and two Loch Raven errors later, Hebron had some breathing room at 11-7. The Raiders called timeout, immediately got the ball back and picked up a point on Binje's first ace of the match. But the Vikings pulled away to a 15-9 victory, as Murdza ended the game with an ace.