Maybe Mount Hebron High School's softball team should add a tightrope to its equipment bag. After all, the Vikings have spent the last week walking one.
Saturday's exhilarating 4-1 victory over Patapsco not only gave Hebron (14-6) its first regional title since 1988 and sent the Vikings to yesterday's 2A state semifinal against Damascus (after the Howard County Sun deadline), it also marked the fourth straight game the Vikings have won in their final at-bat.
And the Vikings have played each game with no room to maneuver. They had to beat Hammond and Glenelg on back-to-back days last week just to make the playoffs.
The Vikings did so with a pair of 5-4 victories produced in the bottom of the seventh. The Glenelg game was a classic, ending with a mammoth solo homer by pitcher Dawn Thomas.
The Vikings, relishing the high drama, then upset Overlea 4-3 the next day in extra innings in the Region II semifinals on a ninth-inning solo homer by Brandee Eckstrom.
Saturday, the Vikings, who had come from behind in their previous three victories, took a 1-0 lead in the fifth and lost the lead the same inning. Then, with the score tied1-1 in the top of the seventh, Hebron did its thing.
Jen O'Neill led off with a single. One out later, O'Neill scored after Patapsco catcher April Simonsen fielded Chris Boone's sacrifice bunt cleanly infront of the plate, but threw past first-baseman Michele Fischer andinto right field.
Catcher Angie Kress than supplied the game's big blow when she lined a two-run homer down the left-field line.
Thomas retired Patapsco in order in the bottom of the seventh, but not without more theatrics. Boone, Hebron's first baseman, reached high to spear a line drive and erase a certain double by leadoff hitter Brandi Vanmeter. Then, center fielder Eckstrom leaped to grab Linda Bauer's liner to end the game.
Hebron's road to a state championship promised to be rough. Damascus (Montgomery County) was 18-0 going intoyesterday's game and was led by junior pitcher Marci Whitehead (17-0), who took an astounding 0.00 ERA to the mound and already had logged 15 no-hitters and four perfect games over 101 innings.
And if the Vikings were to upset Damascus, Northeast (Anne Arundel) likely would be waiting for them. Northeast, you may recall, gave the Vikings a17-0 beating in Hebron's first game.
Suffice it to say this is a different Vikings team, a team that is unquestionably playing its best ball of the spring, not to mention its most exciting.
"Each of these last four games has been a win-or-don't-play-the-next-day deal. Each game has been a pressure game, but we're playing so relaxed right now," said Hebron coach Harry Reese.
"With the county title (theVikings finished in a second-place tie with Glenelg) out of the way,we've gone out and played these last two games for fun. This has been the best week of the season by far."
Besides watching his team refuse to blink under pressure, Reese also has made several key changes. For the past four games, he has started Kress (formerly the shortstop) at catcher, while Eckstrom has moved from behind the plate to center field and Sandy Lewis has shifted from second base to shortstop.
Kress has benefited most from the changes. She homered against Glenelg, then came back Saturday with another fine effort. She followedBoone's single in the fifth inning with a bloop double to push Booneto third base.
Boone then scored on Lewis' sacrifice fly to give Hebron a 1-0 lead.
Before Kress put the finishing touch on the victory in her next at-bat, she was also in the middle of Patapsco's lone scoring rally in the bottom of the fifth.
After Bauer led off with a single, stole second and took third on a groundout, she scored on a wild pitch by Dawn Thomas. On the play, Kress was kicked in the chest after she retrieved the ball near the backstop and dove to the plate in an attempt to tag the sliding Bauer.
"I got pumped up after that (play at the plate)," said Kress, who had the same reaction toThomas' pitching. "She (Thomas) was getting the ball over right away, and she was catching the corners. This is only her first year of pitching, but her arm has really held up."
Ironically, Thomas -- theleague's most feared hitter -- has carried Hebron through the playoffs on the mound. After winning the Glenelg game to put Hebron in the regionals, Thomas, who went 0-for-4 Saturday, is only 1-for-7 in the playoffs. But her average on the mound is near 1.000.
Coming off atwo-hit, one-walk, six-strikeout effort against Overlea, Thomas pitched a three-hitter Saturday, while walking one and striking out six. She constantly jumped ahead in the count with a lively fastball and also watched the Vikings help her defensively.