Back in November, when practice began, it appeared Mount Hebron's boys basketball team was in for a long losing season.
The Vikings had no returning starters. Their junior varsity had fared poorly in recent years. And the varsity team was getting its third new coach in asmany seasons.
But, somehow, coach Scott Robinson has pulled the team together well enough to produce a 5-3 record, one of only three winning recordsin the league so far. And the Vikings have played decent teams including Loyola, Milford Mill and Linganore.
Last week, they beat a Linganore squad that earlier this season defeated Oakland Mills -- considered to be the best team in the county.
Thursday night, in theirhome court, the Vikings displayed the defensive strength that has driven them to their surprising record when they beat St. Mary's of Anne Arundel County, 61-38.
Mount Hebron has allowed an average of 49.8 points per game this year, but only one team has scored more than 52 points against them.
"Everyone on our team can play defense andwe play hard," said point guard Tony Yanero, who said he didn't knowwhat to expect when the season began.
The Vikings played strictlyman-for-man against the Saints, electing not to display any of theirother defensive strategies to the coaches of Atholton, Oakland Mills, Centennial and Wilde Lake, who were on hand to scout.
St. Mary's, whose record dropped to 4-8, was one of the weaker teams on Mount Hebron's slate, so exotic defenses weren't necessary.
The Vikings built a 17-10 lead after one quarter with eight points from center JimZurad, and they controlled the game throughout.
Whether it was a steal or a blocked shot, Mount Hebron repeatedly produced big defensive plays and pressured the Saints into shooting 18-for-51, 35 percent, from the floor.
The Vikings' defense was particularly effective in the third quarter when they extended a 10-point halftime lead intoa 42-25 bulge. Mount Hebron forced St. Mary's into 21 turnovers.
Offensively, the Vikings still need improvement. They missed several easy layups and other shots. But 10 different players scored, and their offensive balance is a definite plus.
"We haven't played our best offense yet," said senior guard Masai Demus, a transfer from Alabama. "I'm a little surprised we're 5-3 because we hadn't played together before, but this team's a lot better than people think."
Zurad,a 6-foot-5 senior center, said preseason predictions that Mount Hebron might end up in last place in the county have spurred the Vikings to achieve.
"Word that we'd be last inspired us," Zurad said. "That'd be hard to take for us seniors."
Zurad is also a big fan of coach Robinson and cites him as one reason for Mount Hebron's early success.
"He knows the game well and picks things up fast when we're not doing something right," Robinson said.
One of Mount Hebron's biggest pluses seems to be its team chemistry. Players on the bench root for the players in the game and communication between players on the floor is excellent.
"Guys who aren't playing aren't complaining, but are rooting for us and that didn't happen in previous years," Zurad said.
"I stressed early this season in team meetings that I was looking for 12 guys who would work together and that I didn't wantanyone who wasn't a team player," Robinson said. "We'll weed out badapples quickly."
Robinson said he stresses intensity in practices, and that his players have been receptive and believe in what they're doing.
"All I ask is that they try their hardest," Robinson said.
Does that victory over Linganore mean the Vikings should beat Oakland Mills when those teams meet?
"You can't compare scores," Yanero said. "We had scouted them and had a good game plan and were downby eight in the third quarter, but hung in and came back. We're not making any predictions. We just plan to play hard every game."
TheVikings open their league season Wednesday at Atholton.