No girls soccer team in the Howard County has had a better turnaround season than Long Reach.
"I couldn't be prouder of them," said third-year coach Jen Peduzzi. "This experience is really what it should be in high school. They play with class and for each other, and you can't ask for more than that."
The Lightning didn't win a game their first season in 1996. They were 5-10 overall and 2-7 in the league in Peduzzi's first season, and 4-10 and 2-7 last year.
The first half of this season's schedule was more challenging, and when Hammond beat the Lightning, 2-0, on Oct. 8, they fell to 2-5, 1-3 in the county. They haven't lost since.
Long Reach produced shutout victories against Wilde Lake, Pallotti, Atholton and Glenelg, beat Howard and tied Oakland Mills. It is 7-5-1, finishing fourth in the county at 5-3-1.
"It's been a fun season," said Peduzzi, whose team plays host to Northeast-AA on Tuesday in a Class 3A East regional quarterfinal game.
A number of factors have contributed to the team's success, but perhaps none more important then the play of goalie Melissa Hueman. A junior transfer from Colorado, Hueman came to Long Reach a week after practice started as a field player.
Peduzzi knew Hueman likes basketball, and her height (5 feet 9) and good hand-eye coordination stood out. Peduzzi put her in goal, and she never left.
"She's saved a lot of shots that in other years would have gone in," said Peduzzi of Hueman, who has 133 saves.
Peduzzi said Hueman has "improved unbelievably" since the season began, and that the Lightning has become more aggressive offensively because the players feel comfortable knowing Hueman is back there.
Another contributor defensively has been sweeper Becky Ward. "She's done an incredible job," Peduzzi said. "She's very consistent."
Long Reach has received most of their scoring from three players -- senior Kai Freeman (six goals, five assists) and juniors Candice Hills (six, four) and Alison West (six, three). Kate Rodriguez, normally a stopper, has moved up top the past four games and has contributed three goals and four assists.
The Lightning has only three seniors. Two of them, Freeman and Lisa Tucker are four-year starters. Only six players have been on the team for three years -- Freeman, Tucker, West, Hills, Shannon Pusey and Jessica Warfield.
Peduzzi said this year's team has worked hard from the start. "When you feel you can win, you're willing to work a little harder and raise the level of intensity," she said.
Team chemistry also has played an important role. "They're real comfortable with each other," said Peduzzi, who added that the players spend time together off the field as well. "They're out there to help each other. No one is out there for themselves. They're out there for the team."
Long Reach's most significant regular-season victory came Oct. 1 when Hills scored the lone goal in a 1-0 decision over then-ninth-ranked Mount Hebron.
"That was big for us," Peduzzi said. "It gave the girls confidence that they could hang with anyone."
In its next game, the Lightning fell behind 3-0 at halftime to Centennial. "I told them at halftime that I didn't want people to think that beating Mount Hebron was fluke and that they had to turn it around," Peduzzi said.
Long Reach did just that before falling, 4-3. "I think we earned a lot of respect for the way we came back," Peduzzi said.
But Long Reach failed to seize the momentum, and three days later was shut out by Hammond. "That was a big disappointment," Peduzzi said. "I was worried we were going to crash."
The Lightning "fixed some things that fell apart," according to Peduzzi, and looked much better in a 2-0 win over Wilde Lake on Oct. 12. They haven't lost since then, and ended the regular season with a 3-0 win Tuesday against Glenelg.
"I don't know how its supposed to be, but compared to the last couple of years, this is the best experience of my high school career," Freeman said. "To go from that first year -- it was horrible, I almost didn't want to play anymore -- to where we are now, it's incredible."