HOWARD COUNTY, MD — In 17 years coaching Mt. Hebron girls soccer, Tim Deppen has never been to a region final. And based on the Vikings’ 2018 regular season resume, the streak would likely continue until at least next fall.
Mt. Hebron entered the postseason with three county wins, an overall record of 4-7-1 — good for fourth-worst in the county — and on a four-game losing streak during which it allowed an average of 3.25 goals per game. Out of five teams in 3A East, Section I, the Vikings were seeded fifth, forcing them to play Long Reach on Oct. 25 for a spot in the main playoff bracket. Unlike most programs, the Vikings needed to win four straight matches to capture a region title. They had not won more than three games in a row all season.
Yet when region final matches kick off around the state early this week, Mt. Hebron will be one of two county girls soccer teams still playing. And should two-time defending state champion River Hill lose on Monday night, the league’s last chance at a region or state title on the girls’ side would come down to the Vikings, who travel to J.M. Bennett on Wednesday night for the 3A East championship. With three playoffs wins over league opponents, the Vikings will play for the program’s first region title since 2000 and third overall.
So, how exactly did this happen? How did a once-mediocre county program wind up on the brink of history?
Luckily, there are a few concrete answers. Let Deppen and senior captains Allie Ritter and Erin Halper explain:
“It’s like we did a total 180,” Halper said. “I feel like we’re now playing for each other.”
“Everybody just wants to be here and everyone wants to keep going,” Ritter added. “No one wants the season to end.”
“There’s something that has changed,” Deppen concluded. “You can call it an extra gear, you can call it grit or determination, but there’s this passion that they almost know they’re going to win. They seem very confident.”
Mt. Hebron’s improbable turnaround began after its match against Glenelg on Oct. 16, its second-to-last game of the regular season. It was Senior Night, and the Vikings fell, 2-1, marking their third straight defeat. They allowed 10 goals over that span.
Following the loss was a meeting, about 45 minutes in length, between Deppen, Halper, Ritter and assistant coach Lydia Kang during which they devised a new defensive formation and switched around their attacking players.
“We all came to an agreement to put the people on the field who want to be on the field, who want to play for each other,” Ritter said.
Ahead of its regular season finale against Wilde Lake on Oct. 18, Mt. Hebron added a fifth defender to what was once a 4-4-2 formation. Halper was previously used as a center midfielder who helped start the Vikings’ attack, but now she’s playing what Deppen refers to as a “second stopper” alongside junior Julia Noppenberger. Both are defensive midfielders tasked with stopping opponents’ top scoring threats. There were also the moves of junior Natalie Lewis to center back and freshman Ana Hoover to outside back in an attempt to sure up the backline.
In the attack, sophomore Riley Benson’s aggressiveness and anticipation skills around the net prompted Deppen to move her from striker to outside midfielder and to switch Alex Masse from center midfielder up to striker. Both Benson and Masse scored in Mt. Hebron’s 2-1 sectional final win over Atholton on Thursday.
Other offensive changes included moving Alexa Dragisics back to attacking midfielder. Dragisics, known more as a physical and direct player, now splits time with the crafty Brie Tabenske to create a balanced attack. Deppen said the duo’s varying styles have been able to “keep the defense on their toes,” which was evident against top-seeded Reservoir on Oct. 30. Behind goals from Dragisics and Tabenske, the Vikings secured a one-goal victory to avenge a 5-2 regular season defeat.
“I mean we literally changed just about everything within the last like two or three weeks,” Deppen said.
These wholesale changes were met with widespread surprise and confusion, and there were certainly some growing pains, especially in the defense. But after a shaky team scrimmage during practice, the Mt. Hebron players began to catch on. Just two days after that Glenelg loss, the Vikings held high-scoring Wilde Lake to one goal for 70 of 80 minutes before succumbing to a 3-0 result. In their first playoff game, they broke their streak of first-round exits with a 2-1 victory at Long Reach.
The Vikings’ past two postseason wins have unfolded in similar fashion: push forward early on, score first, shut down opponents’ best offensive players and hold on to a lead down the stretch. All the while, they tightened up their defensive alignment and fine-tuned their cohesiveness in the final third ahead of Wednesday’s battle with undefeated J.M. Bennett.
“As long as we have a solid defense, we can work it up and get some goals,” Ritter said. “It should be a tough game, but I think that if we play the way we play, no one can stop us.”
“We’re ready,” Halper chimed in moments later. “We’re going to bring it.”
Deppen said beat J.M. Bennett will require his players to be mentally focused and tactically sharp following a two-and-a half hour bus ride to the Eastern Shore. It’ll likely require the Vikings to limit an explosive attack, he said, and might come down to their execution on set pieces.
The only guarantee, however, is that this will be the biggest game of the players’ high school careers.
A match of this magnitude typically evokes nervousness and pressure, but in talking with the Vikings after practice Friday, the overall mood of the team seems to be optimistic, excited and determined.
After all, Mt. Hebron was never supposed to be in this position. In fact, based on their seeding, the Vikings should have been eliminated in the play-in game. They were the underdog of the underdogs.
Now, they’re one win away from breaking an 18-year regional title drought and three victories from winning their first-ever state championship.
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“Everyone is pumped to show people because a lot of people don’t think we have a chance, but look what we’ve done,” Halper reiterated. “It’s really amazing. We also have the extra motivation to show everyone that we’re up there, we’re just as good as everyone.”