Mount Hebron High School romped to its first state volleyball championship Saturday with a business-like thrashing of North East, a perennial power unaccustomed to belittling defeats.
North East's seventh trip to the state finals did not end on a lucky note as Mount Hebron -- making only its second state final appearance -- rode the strong play of senior co-captain Melissa Murdza on the way to a 15-3, 15-6, 15-12 win.
Murdza, the smallest Viking player at 5-feet-2, had a big impact on the Mount Hebron set-up offense and served home match point to squelch a North East comeback in the final game.
"I've always had to work harder than most players because I've had to overcome my height," said Murdza, who plays alongside four starting players who stand seven to eight inches taller. "You have to learn to work with your team even more."
Despite being the smallest player on the court, Murdza's presence became a noticeable factor in the early going, as her soft-touch sets sparked five points en route to a 12-1 Hebron lead in the first game.
Murdza's set-up shots typically were handled by 5-foot-10 junior Brooke Christopher, whose rocketing spikes gave North East (13-3) trouble throughout the match.
The first-game blowout was followed by a tight start in the second game, and at one point North East led, 6-3, after a four-point run by hard-hitting server Jean Fortune. But Christopher answered with three points off her own serve to tie the game.
Mount Hebron (16-1) took the lead for good in the second game on a tip-over by senior co-captain Andrea Day, triggering a nine-point run that was capped by a finesse lob by Day to win it.
North East, traditionally a Cecil County powerhouse that has made 10 state tournament appearances in the last 16 years, appeared uncharacteristically meek and trouble-filled throughout the first two games.
"Not taking anything away from Hebron, but they weren't as good as the final score indicated," said North East coach Catherine Farrell. "We made a lot of mistakes and we didn't serve well. That makes a big difference in a championship game."
North East had previously won four state championships and entered this year's final as somewhat of an unknown in Class 2A.
"The newspapers don't cover us much up there and nobody seems to know what to expect of us in these tournaments," Farrell said.
Mount Hebron, whose only other state final appearance was in 1982, didn't seem to balk at the unknown, however. The Vikings' record this year was the best in school history and they advanced to the final with a three-game win last week over Atholton.
In the clinching third game Saturday, the Vikings charged out to a 10-2 lead behind efficient serving by Murdza, Day and sophomore Kai Scott.
But the Indians, whose lackluster play dropped them in a hole too deep to escape, came back in the clutch and mounted perhaps the strongest comeback in this year's tournament.
Led by the scrambling play of seniors Judy Lang and Stephanie Heise, North East patiently whittled away at the Hebron lead. A tip shot by Heise pulled the Indians to within 10-7 and two consecutive strong serves by Lang made it 10-9.
Some sloppy play by the Vikings enabled North East to move ahead at one point, 12-11, but 5-foot-5 senior Cescili Drake's impressive block of an Indian spike tied the score moments later.
North East could not maintain their burst of inspired play and Hebron moved in front, 14-12. Drake drove home the match point on a hard shot following a weak return of Murdza's serve.
The one-sided outcome and unseating of the usually defiant North East team was unexpected, said Vikings coach Jeannine McCrumb.
"They play more the same type of game that we do. We don't have anyone who really stands out, and neither do they," McCrumb said. "I didn't think we'd beat them by as much as we did, but their mistakes really cost them."
Hebron was knocked out of the tournament last year before reaching the finals. McCrumb said she expected that this year's team had a good chance to bring home the first school championship.
"I expected to be here in the finals," she said. "I didn't know how we'd do when we got here, but we've got a good enough team that I thought we could win it."