Sometimes a new coach can make a crucial difference. Just ask the players and fans at Mount Hebron.
The Vikings have stunned the county boys basketball world this season, winning one close game after another under first-year head coach Scott Robinson.
After Wednesday's 64-51 rout of Centennial, the Vikings were 12-5overall, 7-2 in the league and trailed only Oakland Mills (9-0). Mount Hebron lost to Oakland Mills two weeks ago, 54-48, in a game that could have gone either way.
This is Mount Hebron's best league record since 1987, when the Vikings went 13-1 and won a county title. Not bad for a team expected to finish in last place.
"Coach has beenthe difference in the close games," senior point guard Tony Yanero said. "If you win one or two close ones it might be luck, but not whenyou win this many."
Robinson is a basketball junkie who seeminglyspends every free hour working at his coaching.
Luck once was defined as the "residue of design." And that's precisely the kind of luck Mount Hebron is enjoying. Robinson leaves nothing to chance.
Robinson was a Vikings assistant to the well-respected Chuck Monninger last year, but moved up to head coach when Monninger stepped down. Before coming to Mount Hebron, Robinson served a seven-year apprenticeship to the third-winningest coach in Maryland, Jerry Savage of Loyola High.
Robinson tries to create a family-like atmosphere in which every team member pulls for each other.
"I don't have kids complaining about not getting playing time," he said. "This has been a tremendous experience for me, personally. The kids listen, they're reliableand our practices are intense."
Wednesday's blow-out of Centennial was an anomaly. Mount Hebron's previous night league games were alldecided by six or fewer points. The Vikings won four of those games by three points and one by one point.
Jim Zurad, a 6-foot-5 seniorcenter who averages 11.1 points and 11.2 rebounds and who grabbed 17rebounds against Centennial Wednesday, credits coaching, defense andconditioning with making a big difference this year.
"The defenseseems to create turnovers at the end of games because we're not tired like we were last year," Zurad said. "And we hit our clutch free throws. We could easily be 2-7."
That defense is giving up 51.9 points per game -- third best in the Baltimore area.
A week ago against Atholton, the Vikings trailed by eight points with about a minute to play.
Zurad sank a three-point shot. Dominic Devita, Mount Hebron's leading scorer with an 11.6 average, sank a basket. Yanero hit a three-pointer. Atholton sank the front end of a one-and-one but missed its second shot.
With four seconds left and trailing by one point, the Vikings missed a free throw. But the rebound squirted through an Atholton player's hands to Viking sub Faisel Khan with two secondsleft. He put it in for the 57-56 victory.
In the league-opener three weeks ago, Yanero, who averages 10.3 points and 5 assists, beat Atholton with a three-pointer at the buzzer, 55-52.
And against Wilde Lake two weeks ago, Devita tipped in a missed shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. The Vikings won, 61-58, on key free throws by junior Phil Tonkins (9.2 points per game) with 10 seconds left.
"Tonkins has hit a lot of big free throws for us lately," Yanero said. "And Zurad has been dominating the boards for us."
What makes the close wins more amazing is the inexperience of the Vikings. Not one starter was a starter last season. And the Vikings junior varsity won only five games combined in the previous two seasons.
In asummer league the team also took its lumps, Robinson said.
"But Iknew I had hard workers, and some of them took private lessons last summer from Pat Clatchy, a former UMBC assistant coach," Robinson said. "He worked with them on fundamentals and they progressed."
Senior transfer Masai Demus from Alabama stepped into a starting role, and his quickness and ball handling has been a big help. He has 80 steals.
Viking fans understandably have embraced Robinson and the team's unexpected success with open arms. Large crowds show up for every game, especially on Friday nights.
In the Vikings' main cheering section Wednesday a huge banner read: Robinson's Neighborhood.
"Thebig crowds really make it fun," Zurad said. "They get us up to play defense."
Zurad said that less-than-enthusiastic comments made about the team by Mount Hebron students, the press and even some opposing coaches at the beginning of the season inspired the team to work harder.
"One coach said we wouldn't win a league game. We put in two-a-day practices over the Thanksgiving break, but we didn't get much credit until after we beat Centennial the first time," Zurad said. "They're our big rivals, and the gym was sold out that night."
Robinson spreads the credit for his coaching success. "Having my brother, Chris, as my assistant has been a big help because he was also an assistant at Loyola and we both understand the same system. Early in theseason one of us scouted while the other ran practices," he said.
Robinson said he calls Pat Dennis, an assistant coach at the University of Richmond and former Loyola High player, every week for advice.He also credits girls coach Dave Greenberg for his support and ideas.
With 12 wins and five league games left, Mount Hebron is guaranteed a winning season -- something few thought possible in November.
"If you had asked me then I'd have said I'd be real happy with 12 wins," Robinson said.
Now the Vikings are almost guaranteed a regional playoff spot, they may just shock a few more people before the season's over. A state playoff berth would be nice.