The Whitman Vikings came out of a timeout in the fourth quarter of with their backs to the wall. The starting five — seniors Zoe Walsh, Giovanna Olinto, Laura Yockey and juniors Erin Brown and Julie McCabe — walked towards center court, their faces flushed, their chances of victory dim.
Down by 18 with 5:41 to play in the Maryland 4A state championship semifinals, time was winding down on their season, but they had fight left in them. Brown gave low-fives to each of the girls on the floor and gave them words of encouragement, then glanced towards the scoreboard. It was time for one last stand, a final push in a season that began with high hopes and had earned the Vikings their
first regional championship since 1995.
The whistle blew, and the Vikings got a quick stop on defense, then pushed the ball upcourt where Olinto launched a three-point shot from the right wing.
Olinto’s shot rimmed out, and the Vikings were unable to draw much closer, falling to the eventual and three-time defending state champion Eleanor Roosevelt Raiders 45-28 before an estimated crowd of 1,200 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Retriever Activities Center. Roosevelt defeated Blake High School 52-32 for the state championship on Saturday.
BACKED BY a boisterous crowd, the majority of which came to support Whitman, the Vikings jumped to a quick 5-0 lead over the Raiders.
“I would contribute [Whitman’s quick start] to the Whitman crowd,” said Roosevelt coach Roderick Hairston. “They came out en mass, I really commend Whitman for their support of their team… that definitely helped them in the first quarter.”
The Vikings could not extend the lead and in a game that was extremely defensive from the outset, Whitman led 5-4 after the first quarter.
The Raiders played oppressive defense, doubling up the Viking ballhandlers when possible, forcing bad passes and deflecting good ones.
“They played excellent defense,” said Brown. “They’re really long, I think we underestimated that… they were getting a lot of deflections and a lot of steals.”
That finally paid off for Roosevelt late in the second quarter.
With under two minutes to play in the half and the score tied at 12, the Raiders capitalized off of three turnovers by the Vikings and broke the game open with a 7-0 run and took a 19-12 lead into the break.
“I think [the turning point of the game] was the last 90 seconds of the first half when it went from 12-12 to 19-12… I thought that was really the key for the first half,” said Kenah.
The Raiders gradually extended the lead in the second half, crashing the boards and forcing one turnover after another. For the game the Vikings turned the ball over 31 times and were out-rebounded 43-24. The Vikings were unable to mount a serious comeback threat in the second half.
“Hats off to Eleanor Roosevelt [and] that defense,” said Kenah. “I don’t think I would have ever believed that someone could hold us to less than 30 points.”
“They just really get after it,” said Brown. “They shove, they push--they just get in there, they get dirty. They’re an excellent rebounding team. In order to get those rebounds we had to get tougher than they were. I guess we just couldn’t do that today.”
THE VIKINGS fell to an Eleanor Roosevelt team that reflected their style, right down to their Columbia blue, white and black uniforms. Like the Vikings, the Raiders were a team without a true individual star who got to the state finals by counting on different players to step up each game. Like the Vikings, the Raiders were a team that hustled, played oppressive defense, and relied on forcing their opponent into turnovers. Ultimately, the Raiders were a little bit faster, a little bit taller, and a little bit stronger than the Vikings. They weren’t helped by an officiating crew that let the game grow noticeably physical.
“I’m pretty sure we’re the only team in the history of the state tournament that didn’t take a free throw,” said a visibly emotional Kenah after the game. The Raiders made one of eight free throws; the Vikings took no foul shots in 32 minutes.
As the fourth quarter wound down, Kenah pulled out his starters and put in seldom-used players including senior center Julia Rickert and sophomore forward Morgan Werner. Walsh and Olinto fought back tears as they sat at the end of the bench and watched the final seconds tick down.
“I think Whitman has great kids, their kids play hard,” said Hairston. “Whitman did a really good job, [Kenah] prepared his kids well, but in the end I think the desire that we had played out.”
Roosevelt senior forward Michaya Walker said that winning a third championship would mean, “the world. We put our heart and soul into every practice… it means the world to me.”
“This is history,” said Hairston.
IT WAS a bittersweet ending for a Whitman team that has made significant strides since Kenah took over the program five years ago, and Kenah said that he is proud of how far the team has come in his time.
“We were 5-18 four years ago,” said Whitman coach Pete Kenah. “I really love this senior class; I’m real happy to be here.”
The Vikings began the season in a Montgomery County 4A West Division that was expected from the outset to be a league with a lot of parity in it this season. Whitman quickly established itself as a frontrunner by winning four of their first five and nine of their first 11 games. The Vikings finished the regular season with a 16-5 record and earned a first-round playoff bye. They defeated Quince Orchard in the regional quarterfinals, then knocked off the rival Churchill Bulldogs 52-39 in the regional semifinals to earn a spot in the regional championship.
There they clinched their first regional championship since 1995 by defeating Gaithersburg High School 60-55 and punched their ticket to the state championship.
Despite the defeat, the Vikings said they were proud to have gotten so far and that they saw hope in the future.
“Just the fact that we won the regional title is great,” said Olento.
“It’s pretty cool to think that two of the last three years we played in the regional final, not many teams can say that,” said Walsh. “We just worked really hard together and got really close as a team.”
Kenah said that he will miss the leadership offered by his seniors, but that juniors Erin Brown and Julie McCabe and a roster that this year included three sophomores and one freshman give the team hope for the future.
“These seniors, this kid right here, Zoe Walsh… she’s awesome,” said Kenah. "Zoe, Laura and Gia set the standard for us; we were so lucky to get Erin and Julie in the class behind them and now its kind of feeding off of itself, we’ve gotten letters from some third-graders now that want to be Vikings… hopefully we can keep the momentum going.”
Brown echoed those sentiments and said she’d like to see Eleanor Roosevelt again.
“We’re definitely looking to come back, no matter what,” Brown said. “We’re losing some great seniors, but we just work so hard in practice, I think we have the ability to come back and win another regional championship; we’re going to be prepared for them next year.”