In one sense, the championship trophy Hammond won at Atholton's annual boys lacrosse tournament meant nothing. The Golden Bears' two tournament victories don't count in the standings, and Hammond earned no points to be tabulated when playoff teams are seeded next month.
But don't tell Coach Bill Smith that Hammond won in vain.
"The big thing I told them was to win this thing, so they would know what it felt like to win something. Then, they can build on that," said Smith, whose Bears whipped Glenelg, 13-9, on Wednesday to win the Atholton tournament. It was the first time Hammond won the tournament in its six-year existence.
"I think it was very important," added junior midfielder Tommy Lea, who scored four goals and added an assist against Glenelg. "It was great for Coach Smith, since he's never won anything in eight years of coaching lacrosse here. It also gave the team confidence that we can beat good teams. We don't feel inferior. Everybody is ready for (Mount) Hebron."
The Bears (6-2) willfind out soon just how ready they are.
The next stop on their schedule is at Mount Hebron Wednesday. The defending 2A champion Vikingsare favored to win their fourth county championship in five seasons under Coach Warren Michael.
Hammond, which beat Glenelg for the second time in a week -- avenging a defeat that denied the Golden Bearsa share of the county title last year -- are riding a four-game winning streak. And the Bears will bring an intriguing team to Hebron on Wednesday.
It's an aggressive group that sometimes has been too feisty for its own good. Wednesday, The Bears drew 12 flags against Glenelg, leaving them in man-down situations for more than 11 minutes.
Ironically, Hammond was most impressive during those dangerous times, particularly in the final minute of the first half. The Bears lostone, then two, then three players to flags. Yet, despite playing three men short for the final 30 seconds, they held the Gladiators scoreless and preserved a 7-3 halftime lead.
"That could have been the turning point of the game," Smith said. "I like the enthusiasm we show, but somehow we've got to get it (the penalties) under control. Onegood thing about today is we didn't start slowly."
Sluggish starts have been another problem for the Bears. In their first Glenelg meeting, they spotted the Gladiators a 3-2 lead late in the first half before pulling away to a 10-6 victory. And in the semifinal round of the Atholton tournament, Hammond stumbled to a 4-2 halftime deficit against the host Raiders, before ripping off 10 second-half goals en route to a 12-8 win.
Hammond didn't dally in its Glenelg rematch. Keith Chance, the Bears' superb senior attackman, scored the first of four goals 19 seconds into the contest to give Hammond a 1-0 lead. Glenelg tied the score at 1-1 on a goal by defenseman Greg Feaga, then trailed the rest of the way.
With Glenelg looking sluggish, the Bears took over the first half with a 4-0 run. Lea scored twice, and Chance and Eric Brown (four assists) added goals to give Hammond a 7-2 lead with 2:50 left in the half. Glenelg never got closer than two goals after that.
Besides heading into Hebron on a high note, the Bears also face their toughest test as a team in transition.
Several players are playing new positions, with Lea the most notable newcomerat midfield. An attackman since the seventh grade, Lea replaced the graduated Ricky Matthews at midfield.
"We needed that controller, and we needed a faceoff man. Tommy answered both questions," said Smith, whose mix-and-match philosophy also includes Brown and Jesse Adami.
Brown started the season at midfield, but shifted to attack during the first Glenelg game. He assisted on four consecutive, first-half goals Wednesday. Adami moved from midfield to attack.
"The hardest adjustment for me was the conditioning," said Lea, who got so tired after playing one half at midfield against Fallston last month -- Hammond's last defeat -- that he had to move to attack in the second half.
"But I like midfield now more than attack," he added. "I canrun down the field and see the whole field more. What me and Keith are finding out is that teams trying to shut us down are going to haveproblems with other guys."
The adjustment hasn't affected Lea's production. He's already scored 24 goals and dished out 22 assists, while feeding Chance for many of his team-high 29 goals. Lea's toughestadjustment has been on defense, where he is averaging nearly five penalties a game. He drew five Wednesday.
Speaking of defense, Hammond has also received an unexpected spark from senior goalie Brian Thierrin. A year-round soccer player who is playing lacrosse for the first time, Thierrin won the goalie job quickly by showing what Smith called "Division I skills." And Thierrin has responded to the challengeby averaging 13 saves. He had 17 Wednesday.
Smith looks at his Hammond puzzle and sees the pieces fitting the right holes at the righttime.
"Tommy and Keith are two of the best players around. I don't care what anybody says," Smith said. "Our defense has really started to step up, and if Brian (Thierrin) had played lacrosse for four years, he would be a Division I goalie, no doubt about it.
"We're still up and down, and we still get too many darn penalties, but I'm happy with where we are right now."