Their season began with an injury to top player Jill Wittnebel. It continued with a 1-4 start, including two shutout losses.
For the Bel Air Bobcats, this has been a season of resiliency. That's why for coach Amy Sexton, nothing, not even a 15-2, 15-2, 15-2 loss to powerhouse Northern of Calvert last night in the Class 3A state semifinals at CCBC-Essex, could cloud what has turned into one of the brightest seasons in school history.
"Starting out the season 1-4, then winning the rest of our games -- it was a great accomplishment," Sexton said. "My girls went out there and never gave up, and I'm proud of them."
On this night, however, pride wasn't nearly enough.
The Patriots (18-0), seeking their fifth state championship in six years and sixth in the '90s, dominated from start to finish. Led by senior Katie Radford (nine kills) and junior Darcey Krug (five), Northern jumped out to big leads in all three games, tying Centennial's 1997 (vs. Loch Raven) state tournament record for fewest points allowed in a match.
Northern totaled 11 aces and made four attack errors -- a minuscule number by any standard.
The outcome was a bit of a surprise to Patriots coach Beth Incrocci, who said she didn't know quite what to expect from a Bobcats team entering the night with an 11-match winning streak.
"All I kept hearing about was how they had this great outside hitter [Wittnebel]," said Incrocci. "They just weren't able to get the ball to her. We were able to control the offense so they couldn't keep setting her."
Bel Air (12-5) knew it was overmatched. Making their first trip to the state semifinals since 1989, the Bobcats said they were simply out to enjoy the experience.
"Nobody really got down," Wittnebel said. "Our team has never seen this competition level, so it can only be good for us. We came here with a positive attitude, hoping to get the sportsmanship award."
For Sexton, the toughest job was convincing her players that they had a chance.
"At the beginning of the week, the girls' attitude was, 'We made it here, but they're a good team. We're going to get crushed,' " said Sexton. "By the end of the week. I had them believing that we deserved to be here and could play with any team. Their goal was not to lose, 15-0, and they did it."
No. 2 River Hill 3, Thomas Johnson 2: Sparked by the hitting and serving of Shannon Patrick and the net play of Keiko Miller, the Hawks rallied to defeat Frederick County's Thomas Johnson in the other Class 3A state semifinal match.
River Hill (18-2) will get another shot at Northern (18-0) in the championship 7;30 p.m. Saturday at CCBC-Catonsville.
Northern defeated River Hill, 15-6, 15-7, 15-9, in the season opener for both teams.
Patrick had eight aces -- six in a 10-point River Hill run that earned it the fourth game -- and 24 kills. She was 24-for-25 serving and had eight blocks.
Miller, a 6-foot-1 junior, had 10 kills and eight blocks.
"Keiko had the match of her life," River Hill coach Sybil Modispacher said.
-- Stan Rappaport