With Saturday's 23-20 upset of fifth-ranked Howard County rival River Hill, streaking Mount Hebron thrust itself into the thick of the Class 3A East region playoff chase and raised the stakes for itself and five other league teams.
Not only have the Vikings (6-3 overall, 6-2 county) of sixth-year coach Larry Luthe won six of their past seven games after an 0-2 start, but they have a chance at their first playoff berth since being Class 1A state runners-up in 1982.
On Saturday, the Vikings have a home game against sixth-ranked and defending county co-champ Wilde Lake (7-2, 7-1). A victory is not as out of reach now as some may have envisioned at the season's outset.
"In the beginning of the season, we never talked about making the playoffs as much as being a better team every week and that, hopefully, everything else would take care of itself," said Luthe, whose Vikings (2-7, 1-7 last fall) lost, 21-18, to fourth-ranked and defending league co-champ Glenelg (9-0, 8-0) two weeks ago.
"We allowed a blocked punt to lead to the winning touchdown by Glenelg, and in a loss to City we lose a muffed punt on a bad call by the referee," said Luthe, whose team was drilled by Long Reach, 34-7. "Long Reach handled us, but you give us two plays back and we're an 8-1 team."
Luthe attributes much of the turnaround to defensive backs Derek Chell, Jay Morales and Chris Eccelston, as well as nose guard Dan Choi, linebacker Mike Cutulle and defensive end Brian Dribben. Quarterback Kyle Barnett provides the offensive stability.
On Saturday, the Vikings play host to a Wildecats' squad aiming not only to remain in contention with Glenelg for the league title, but to secure their 14th playoff berth and a shot at a sixth state title under veteran coach Doug DuVall.
Winners of 35 straight regular-season games, the Gladiators already have secured a Class 2A South region berth and a share of their second straight league crown. But on Saturday, Glenelg faces River Hill (7-2, 6-2), which has a sense of urgency - and a need for a win to qualify for its first-ever postseason.
Long Reach (6-3, 6-3), which visits No. 9 Oakland Mills (7-2, 6-2) on Saturday, also has a shot at a 3A East region berth.
"If we lose to Glenelg, Wilde Lake loses to Mount Hebron, and Long Reach beats Oakland Mills, we could all end up with 7-3 records, then it comes down to points," said River Hill's fourth-year coach Brian Van Deusen. "A number of these players were sophomores on an undefeated JV team. That carried over into a 7-3 season last year, and they're hoping to build on that this year and to really put the program on the map."
Leading the way are Hawks receiver Ben Nowak (54 receptions, 615 yards, six touchdowns), quarterback Ben Hostetler (1,108 passing yards, 13 touchdowns) and running back Tim Morgan (832 rushing yards, six touchdowns).
They operate behind the veteran line of Nick Madieu, Charlie LaGrave and Josh Bogdanor. Defensive back Rogers Barnes has three interceptions, and defensive tackle Cory Sumpter has six sacks.
Baltimore City's W.E.B. DuBois (1A South) and Baltimore County's Patapsco (3A North) have earned their first-ever playoff berths. Others looking to do the same are Western Tech (2A North) and Parkville (4A North), each of Baltimore County, and Chesapeake-Anne Arundel (4A East).
Even before playoff expansion, several area teams already had made a habit of qualifying for the postseason. Some are back again.
Baltimore County's Randallstown (3A North) has clinched its 16th playoff berth, having won two state titles in four championship games. Oakland Mills (1A South), a state champ in '98, is in its 13th postseason. Havre de Grace (1A North), winner of three crowns in six title games, also makes its 13th playoff appearance. Woodlawn (4A North) makes its 12th appearance.
Since making their first appearances in the 1990s, a few area teams have dominated postseason play, even going as far as the championship game.
Baltimore County's Hereford of the 2A North, a three-time state champ, is making its eighth straight playoff appearance since debuting in '97. In Baltimore City, Dunbar of the 1A South goes after its third state title in its eighth playoff berth since first appearing in the postseason in '93. Baltimore County's Eastern Tech of the 2A North, a state finalist in '98, makes its sixth appearance since debuting in '97.