One month ago, at the football season's midway point, Mt. Hebron was on course to make a historic turnaround.
The Vikings were 5-0 after seven consecutive seasons without a winning record. All they needed was to win just one more of their last five games to break the losing streak. But at the time, their sights were understandably aimed higher.
But then, after a humbling 37-0 loss at defending state champion River Hill in week six, Mt. Hebron had to regroup.
"It's just about where we go from here," first-year coach Phil Zacharias said at the time. "One game does not a season make."
But after two more weeks and two more lopsided losses — to Atholton and Glenelg — the Vikings were seeing their dream season start to slip away, and expectations were tempered once again.
"We're going to look back and we're going to be upset because we've let a great opportunity get away from us," Zacharias said after the loss to Glenelg.
But in sports, as they say, winning is the ultimate cure-all.
And with last Friday's 20-14 win over Howard, Mt. Hebron not only clinched its first winning season since 2004, but also is now in position to clinch the third-seed in the 3A East regional playoffs with a win at Hammond (4-5) on Friday night.
"We always were confident what kind of team we were, it's just that we knew we needed to get back to where we were before," said junior Zach Nicholas, who scored on a 53-yard reception from quarterback Malik Gilmore, and on a 20-yard interception return in the win over Howard.
Gilmore and Nicholas are just two of the reasons that Mt. Hebron could be a very dangerous playoff team, but they're not in yet. If the regular season ended after last week, the four teams to make the 3A East regional playoffs would be River Hill (91 playoff points), Atholton (83), Mt. Hebron (57) and Reservoir (53), with Howard (49) missing the cut.
"I'm proud of the way our kids fought until the end," Howard coach Bruce Strunk said. "It doesn't always work out."
While it's a long shot, if Howard were to upset River Hill (9-0) on Friday night, the Lions would reap 16 playoff points to give them 65 for the season. So Mt. Hebron needs to win to guarantee its first playoff berth since 2003.
Howard has a much tougher road ahead. But adversity is nothing new for the 2012 Lions, whose difficult season has included season-ending injuries to a starting running back (Brady Curley) and starting quarterback (Austin Blair), not to mention the death of a former teammate, 2012 grad Joey Bonavitacola.
"They've certainly had their share of adversity this year and God bless them, they've been able to persevere as a team," Zacharias said. "Our adversity compared to what they have been through is minimal, so we're just glad to continue to play.
"We have a winning season for our football program and our school. We got there, but I guess there's more out there."
Reservoir, meanwhile, can secure its first ever postseason berth with a win against Oakland Mills (0-9) Friday night and a loss by Mt. Hebron or Howard.
Howard County's best hope for a contender in the 2A South region was Glenelg (6-3). But the Gladiators are mathematically eliminated from catching fourth-seeded Gwynn Park, even with a win over Atholton on Friday.
While the rest of the county scratches and claws, River Hill has continued to impress with its dominance. The Hawks are riding a four-game shutout streak, defeating their last four opponents by a combined 177-0. (In 2007, the Hawks had five shutouts in a row, and a state-record 11 for the season.) Still, coach Brian Van Deusen knows that his team will be challenged in the upcoming playoffs.
"This county is getting tougher and tougher," said Van Deusen after his team clinched at least a share of the county title by defeating Wilde Lake last week. "Four of the last five state champions (in the Class 3A) have come through this county. Any time you can win this county it's a good thing."
Brandon Hopp contributed to this story.
Week 10 schedule
All games Friday at 7 p.m.
Glenelg (6-3) at Atholton (8-1)
Long Reach (2-7) at Centennial (3-6)
Marriotts Ridge (2-7) at Wilde Lake (4-5)
Mt. Hebron (6-3) at Hammond (4-5)
Oakland Mills (0-9) at Reservoir (5-4)
River Hill (9-0) at Howard (5-4)