Mount Hebron's softball team knew the score before the first pitch was thrown in Tuesday's Class 2A state semifinal game against Damascus.
The Vikings knew plenty about the undefeated Hornets of Montgomery County and junior pitcher Marci Whitehead, their extraordinary topgun. They had read about Whitehead's 17-0 record and her astounding triplet of 15 no-hitters, four perfect games and a 0.00 ERA in 101 innings. They knew the odds of a Hebron upset were about as long as a typical Dawn Thomas home run.
Hebron tried to offset the facts with psychological strategy. TheVikings had just concluded the most thrilling week of their season, a week in which they had won two games in their final at-bat to make the Region II playoffs and two more games in their last at-bat to winthe regional title, putting them in the state playoffs for the firsttime since 1988.
On top of that, the Vikings were playing with a devil-may-care attitude, secure in the knowledge that last year's 4-15 season had already been erased. They were peaking at the perfect time. Anything could happen, right?
Balder--, said Whitehead -- not in words but with her powerful right arm, which rained nasty fastballs on the overmatched Vikings.
And after Whitehead fanned Hebron outfielder Brandee Eckstrom with, of all things, a changeup to completethe Hornets' 14-0 victory, the Vikings only could fall back on victories of the moral kind.
"I've never seen a pitcher like her (Whitehead) before. I don't know how fast she was throwing, but it's harderthan anyone I've seen," said Hebron third baseman JoAnn Liberto, whostruck out in each of her three trips to the plate.
"We thought she was hittable. We were looking for some walks and hoping people would knock us in. I'm just glad we got here."
Whitehead saw to it that the Vikings' trips to home plate at Anne Arundel County's Upton Field were brief. After experiencing an early lapse of control, she regrouped to record 17 strikeouts, including 11 straight to end the game.
Whitehead, who walked a batter in each of the first two innings,went on to strike out the side four times. Four Hebron batters dragged nothing but Ks back to the bench. Only three Vikings managed to put the ball in play.
The big news for Hebron fans was Whitehead didnot victimize the Vikings with another no-hitter. Thomas, the Vikings' pitcher and leading hitter, made sure of that. After going down swinging in the first inning, Thomas reached out and grounded a changeup into left field in the fourth. She then watched Liberto and Eckstrom fan to end that inning.
Whitehead even had the last word with Thomas, who, in the final at-bat of a brilliant, four-year varsity career, took a called third strike in the seventh.
"We heard about theno-hitters, and we weren't going to let that
happen," said Thomas, who kept her composure remarkably while the Hornets proved they were not a one-armed team.
Damascus pounded Thomas for 15 hits and turned the game into a 10-0 rout after three innings. Seven Hornets collected at least two hits. The Hornets also played flawless defense onthose rare occasions when it was necessary. Thomas smiled through itall.
"Coming into the game, I really thought we had a chance, butnot much of a chance," she said. "After the third inning, all I could do was laugh and just go out and have fun. I haven't been here since my freshman year. I was glad to get back."
Besides showcasing Whitehead's talent -- she had surrendered just eight hits and 14 walks while striking out 238 in 109 innings going into yesterday's 2A championship game against Northeast (Anne Arundel) -- the game also showedthe value of postseason experience.
Damascus (19-0), which made it to the state semifinals last year, looked like the more relaxed team in pre-game warm-ups Tuesday and played that way.
The Vikings (14-7) and Coach Harry Reese may have talked a lot about staying calm and enjoying the moment, but soon after the opening bell sounded, Hebron played like a team feeling the pressure of the state tournament setting.
Liberto and Eckstrom made errors in the first inning to allow Damascus to take a 2-0 lead. Damascus broke the game open with a six-run second inning that featured six hits, but the hits were sandwiched around Hebron blunders.
Shortstop Sandy Lewis made an errant throw to allow one run to score, and catcher Angie Kress allowed another run to score when she walked halfway to the mound to talk with Thomas, but forgot to request a time out.
The Vikings committed seven errors, which produced six unearned runs.
"We were going to try to manufacture a run or two and hope the defense could hold them," said Reese. "They hit Dawn harder than anyone has hit her all year. They have a good program and a nice pitcher. She's faster than anyone we've faced this year (including Northeast's Kristy Zulka, who beat Hebron last month, 17-0).
"We had a good season. We went from 4-15 towinning our region," Reese said.
"They have no regrets. They werehere, and no one else from Howard County was here, so they shouldn'thang their heads."