As Hammond volleyball coach Henry Dahlen prepared his team for competition three months ago, he figured things could not get any worse than they did last year.
Then again, Dahlen did not foresee the Golden Bears improving this dramatically either.
The Bears went from 2-12 doormats last year to an 11-4 playoff team this fall, an accomplishment that points to Dahlen -- the Howard County Sun's Coach of the Year -- as much as his players.
"In the beginning, I was looking at losing to the big two (Centennial and Mount Hebron) and having trouble with Oakland Mills, Howard and Atholton," Dahlen said. "I figured we'd go 8-7, maybe."
The Bears were a team that almost had to improve. They were coming off the worst season of Dahlen's seven years at Hammond. They returned proven talent like Sonia Keiner and Bridget Keefe, and had several promising players moving up from the junior varsity.
Ironically, Dahlen points to an early season blowout loss to Mount Hebron as a turning point.Dahlen, a vocal, demanding coach, was furious with Hammond's lackluster play.
"Hebron crushed us, and we practiced for 45 minutes right after thematch," he said.
Hammond responded to Dahlen by beating Oakland Mills in its next match, a victory that ignited the Bears. "That carried us. We knew how well we could play after that," Dahlen said.
From there, the Bears beat everyone in the county except undefeated, first-place Centennial and second-place Hebron, each of whom went on towin state championships.
Even in defeat, the Bears held their own. They extended Hebron to five games in their rematch. And Hammond was the first team to win a game from Centennial, which dropped only four games out of 61.
Hammond's early exit from the regional playoffs -- the Bears fell to Loch Raven (Baltimore County) in the first round -- ended the season on a sour note.
But by finishing a strong third in the county and making the playoffs, the Bears made it clear they are no longer doormats.