With the playoffs just around the corner, some of the same old faces -- the volleyball teams from Centennial and Atholton, the field hockey teams from Glenelg and Centennial -- are gearing up for the real games.
But the season's two most satisfying stories concern upstarts that haven't played beyond the regular season in recent years. We're speaking of Hammond's volleyball team and the field hockey team from Mount Hebron.
Hammond is a true Cinderella story. The Golden Bears, who finished 2-12 last year, figured at best to occupy the middle of the county standings and miss the playoffs. All the Bears have done isbeat everyone but first-place Centennial and second-place Mount Hebron, while virtually assuring themselves the third or fourth seed in the Class 2A Region II playoffs that begin Nov. 5.
"I expected thisto be a learning year, since we're a very young team. Our main goal was to learn the system more than to win games," said Hammond coach Henry Dahlen, whose Bears went into Friday night's Glenelg match (pastthe Howard County Sun deadline) with a 9-3 overall record and a gripon third place in the county with an 8-3 record.
The Bears have surprised the league with a squad that doesn't floor opponents with athletic ability. Hammond relies on scrappy defense, steady passing from its three-setter offense, and consistency from its two top players -- 5-foot-9 sophomore middle hitter Sonia Keiner, and 5-3 senior setter/outside hitter Bridget Keefe.
Keiner, the only player with clubvolleyball experience, leads the offense with 96 kills, including 20in Tuesday's gritty, five-game victory over Atholton. Keiner also sets well, and is on an amazing service run. On the season, she has a 95.8 percent success rate. She has made good on 97 of her last 98 serves (99 percent), has produced 26 aces, and has collected a team-high 27 point blocks at the net.
"Our team doesn't have a lot of stars," Dahlen said. "Sonia's job is to control the net and not make a lot of mistakes. She does everything for us."
Keefe, like Hebron's Melissa Murdza last year, probably leads the county in diving after loose balls. The team's best setter, she also has 50 kills and 89 servicepoints.
Senior hitter Crista Frankos (49 kills, 14 point blocks) and junior Ashley Scott (team-leading 30 aces) add support.
Dahlensaid he saw signs of new life last year, when Hammond won two of itslast three matches after a 0-10 start.
This year, the Bears showed their mettle by winning two matches in come-from-behind, five-game fashion. And in losing to defending 2A champion Hebron last week, theBears lost the first two games, then won the next two before falling,15-13. The Bears are the only team besides Hebron to win a game against undefeated Centennial.
Hammond will probably face Loch Raven (Baltimore County) in the regional semifinals, then battle Hebron in the finals. Hebron (9-1) would have the unpleasant task of facing the Bears for the third time.
Hebron, the likely second seed, has hitter Brooke Christopher back in the lineup. She lost six pounds while missing two weeks with a kidney stone problem. Even with Christopher, though, the Vikings are not playing well enough to suit coach Jeannine McCrumb.
"We're just not clicking. We didn't play as well as we can at Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills," said McCrumb. "Maybe my expectations have been too high all year. I really can't tell."
McCrumb will probably find out more about her team when the Vikings travel to Centennial Thursday to try for a share of the county championship. Centennial whipped the Eagles in four games in the first meeting.
Centennial, meanwhile, will roll into the 3A Region III playoffs as thelikely top seed. The Eagles have won 36 of 38 games this year. If they face Atholton (7-5) in the regionals, the Raiders' season will probably end quickly. Centennial outscored Atholton, 45-6, in a three-game sweep on Oct. 16.
In field hockey, Centennial will make yet another trip to the regionals Tuesday under 15-year coach Gail Purcell.
The Eagles weathered a tough, out-of-county schedule, and took a 6-4-1 record into Friday's game against Mount Hebron. As the second seed in Class 3A Region III, the Eagles could eventually face the Howard Lions (4-6-1), a comeback story of their own. The Lions, underfirst-year coach Karen Doerrler, should wind up as the region's fourth seed after winning just four games in the previous two seasons. Centennial will likely play host to Linganore Tuesday. Howard will probably travel to heavily favored, top-seeded South Carroll.
Glenelg and 15-year coach Ginger Kincaid will make another run at an elusive state title, when the Gladiators either host or travel to Liberty Tuesday, depending on whether Glenelg is dealt the second or third seed in 2A Region I. Should the Gladiators (8-1-2) prevail, they would probably travel to top-seeded Middletown Thursday for the regional finals.
For the second straight year, the fall's best hockey story comes out of Hebron.
Last season, first-year coach Jeannette Ireland brought the Vikings back from oblivion and nearly to the playoffs. This year, Hebron has had another great run. The Vikings, 2-2-2 in the county (6-3-2 overall) prior to Friday's Centennial game, have practically locked up the second seed in Class 2A Region III. Hebron has allowed just seven goals this year.