When the battle-hardened girls from Mount Hebron High's lacrosse team take the field tonight to vie for their eighth state title, don't be surprised if their fans get a little loud.
In this Ellicott City community, lacrosse is a passion shared by players and observers alike.
Girls on the team train like Olympians - hard and year-round. Ranked No. 1 in the nation by USLacrosse, the sport's national governing body, the team is on a 49-game winning streak that spans three seasons.
Behind the powerhouse team are neighborhoods so steeped in the game that adults keep an eye out for future players, parents run tournaments and Mount Hebron Vikings fans pack the stands at away games. An annual yard-sale fund-raiser collects several thousand dollars for the team. Businesses gladly buy ads in the girls and boys lacrosse teams' program, this year a whopping 84 pages.
All this in a town where the notion of girls lacrosse is younger than the players. The county program started in 1988.
Those who follow the team - parents, former players, younger siblings, fellow students - are so proud of these girls that they don't mind pitching in. And they plan to be out in force at 8 tonight when Mount Hebron takes on in-county rival Glenelg High School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"We consider it a privilege to be a part of this program," said Lisa McCarthy, a mother of four, all lacrosse players. "We really want to support our children."
It's in part a reaction to the dedication of players themselves: The teen-agers practice on weekends. They practice during spring break and summer vacation. They practice in the rain and the snow.
It's not unusual to find players signed up for several lacrosse leagues at once in the off-season.
Team members know that all eyes are watching them. They're well-versed in the tradition of Mount Hebron girls lacrosse. They consider membership in this sorority of sorts to be an honor and a responsibility."It's a great sense of accomplishment to be a part of Mount Hebron lacrosse," said Katie Jeschke, a 17-year-old senior. "It's something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."
Now a phenomenon, the team started out scrappy. Most of the players had never picked up a lacrosse stick before high school. P. J. Kesmodel, Mount Hebron's guidance counselor and the team's first coach, improvised by finding good athletes at the school and talking them into playing.
The coaching staff also recruited early, asking middle school and elementary school physical-education teachers to point out their best pupils. And they started the school's annual Viking summer lacrosse camp for neighborhood girls in grades three through eight.
As for year-round practice: Kesmodel not only handed each of his players applications to off-season lacrosse leagues, he showed up at all those games.
"You just keep getting that message across to the kids that this is really important, the coach really cares," said Kesmodel, who ran the program through 1995.
Chris Robinson, who took over as head coach after Kesmodel, said he hardly needs to recruit any more.
Girls are taking up the game at an early age, and the program attracts players.
He likens it to the elite Navy SEALs: It's tough, and it earns its membership "an automatic respect.""The big status thing for girls here is to be on the lacrosse team," Kesmodel said.
As the team prepares for the state championships, Robinson is hoping to head off trouble that lingers from last spring, when lacrosse players attended a wild post-championships celebration with alcohol.
Police were called in, but Mount Hebron officials did not discipline any players because the event was off school grounds.
Last week, Robinson, also the acting assistant principal of Mount Hebron, sent a letter to players' parents reminding them of the incident and of their responsibility for their daughters' actions.
"A coach is responsible, but there are limitations," he said Friday, a copy of the letter lying on his desk. "The best thing a coach can do is prepare students to make good decisions when they're put in awkward situations. We can't be there to make those decisions."
Later that day, he was on the sidelines, coaching his team to a 20-8 win over Hereford High School in the Class 3A-2A-1A state semifinals at UMBC.
Nearly a hundred parents and friends - some dressed in school colors, some ringing cow bells, one waving a Viking flag - watched the rout, cheering, yelling and, in the early minutes, bellowing at the team to "step it up!"
This is how good the Vikings are: In the 30 seconds it took the game's announcer to cover the basic details of one Mount Hebron score, the girls slipped another one past the Hereford goalie.
This season, the Vikings scored at least 20 goals in 11 of their 18 games.
Against county teams, Mount Hebron players racked up 204 goals and allowed 22. Their only loss to a county team - ever - was to Centennial on April 25, 1990.
This dominance does not come without difficulties. Some county teams, frustrated and embarrassed, resent the Vikings and their lopsided wins. Competitors have complained that Mount Hebron players run up the score to rub it in.
Bill Broglie, whose older daughter is a junior on Mount Hebron's team, understands the frustration. But he doesn't see what the team can do. Robinson puts his second-string players in the games, too.
"The kids have worked to be as good as they are," Broglie said.
Ginger Kincaid, the veteran coach of Glenelg High School's girls lacrosse team, knows the sting of losing to Mount Hebron. But she also thinks that many teams do not understand - and would not be willing to duplicate - the amount of effort that the Vikings expend every year.
Kincaid's players aren't slouches, either. Glenelg is Mount Hebron's opponent in the state championship this year. But she thinks Mount Hebron's longtime No. 1 status "comes at a high price."
There's the potential for burn-out, she said, not to mention the stress of feeling that the tradition of winning must be continued.
"It's a choice," she said. "I know it works for them, and a lot of people come out of that program very successful. ... I have tremendous respect for what they do."
Players say the work - which includes six days of practice a week during the season - isn't as restrictive as it might appear. Most also play another sport. Some play three.
Julie Kickham, a star player for Mount Hebron who graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on Sunday, said the experience forced her to manage her time carefully.
"But it was worth it," said Kickham, 21, one of many Vikings to earn a lacrosse scholarship. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. ... It's like getting on a wave, and riding. It's an exhilarating feeling."
Sun staff writer Stan Rappaport contributed to this article.