Local bragging rights are all that remain of the Hammond-Mount Hebron girls basketball rivalry, but that's enough to make it the marquee matchup of the Howard County League.
Tomorrow night, No. 2 Hammond hosts the No. 6 Vikings at 7:30 for the first of two league showdowns.
This rivalry has grown fierce over the past few years, because only one could emerge from their Class 2A region to advance to the state final four.
"The last two years when we've played in the regionals, most people thought that game would determine who was going to win the state championship," said Mount Hebron coach Dave Greenberg, whose team last won a state title in 1991.
In 1992, Hammond rebounded from two regular-season losses to beat the Vikings in the regional final. The Bears went on to win the state title that year. Last year, Hammond again knocked off the Vikings after losing twice, but the Bears were upset in the state championship.
Even though Mount Hebron's move to Class 3A eliminates the year-end showdown, the regular-season games shouldn't lose their fire.
"It's still a really important game," said Vikings senior forward Kristen Lloyd. "Since they're ranked second and we're ranked sixth, they have everything to lose, and we can only benefit from playing a good game and beating them."
The Golden Bears, however, have plenty of incentive too. They never have won the Howard County championship and Mount Hebron has claimed 13 of the last 15 titles.
"There's still a lot riding on this game," said Hammond's All-Metro point guard Kacy Williams. "Every game against Mount Hebron is big, but we always seem to fold during the regular season. We have some goals and winning counties this year is definitely one of them."
Neither team has great depth so it helps to have two injured players return. Forward Tameka Harrison is back from an eye injury for Hammond, which has struggled with foul trouble in its last few games. Guard Kathy Doyle, although still hurting from a sprained ankle, brings her quickness back to Mount Hebron's lineup.
"The biggest thing is they're quick and athletic and they have the skills whereas we have to rely more on fundamentals and smarts," said Greenberg. "A lot of times in a pressure game, that athletic ability can help you come up with a loose ball or make up for some mistakes."
The Bears (6-1 overall, 1-0 league) have tremendous balance. Four starters average in double figures. After a couple of 20-point efforts, Tiki Nicholson leads the team with 16.3 points per game followed by Williams, 15.9; Sonia Keiner, 12.6; Kellye Townsend, 10.3; and Harrison, 8.5.
On the boards, it's the same story. Townsend, a 5-foot-10 forward, leads with 8.9 followed by Keiner, 7.0 and 6-1 freshman sixth man Rene Hines with 6.9. Williams averaged 6.6 rebounds and Nicholson, 6.3.
Hammond suffered its only loss to Elizabeth Seton in the IAABO Christmas Tournament. Otherwise, the Bears have used their quick defense to swarm all over everybody.
The Bears' pressure defense forces a lot of turnovers, and that's something the Vikings cannot afford. They can't let Hammond run away with the game, but that's exactly what the Bears want to do. It's what they do best.
"We have to push the ball up a lot and get a lot of easy baskets instead of relying on our half-court offense," said Williams. "We have to control the pace. We want to run when we want to run and slow down when we want to slow down."
On the other hand, the Vikings (4-4, 1-0) want to slow everything down. Led by shooting guard Emily Yanero, with 14.3 points, and 6-2 center Rachel Cimmier, with 13.8 points and 10.9 rebounds, they have to be patient on offense and rebound well.
"Whoever controls the pace and plays the kind of game they want, that's going to determine this game," said Lloyd, who verbally committed to Bucknell last week.
"We have to take our time. We have to keep it at our pace. We have to get into our half-court offense. We have to stay away from the quick pace and not get into a back-and-forth game. That's the kind of game Hammond plays well because of their quickness."