Most coaches will say there's nothing quite like a loss to help sharpen the focus of a confident team. The third-ranked River Hill girls soccer team had only one loss during the regular season -- to county rival Centennial.
To coach Joan Kelso Smedley, however, it was enough to do the trick.
Taking nothing for granted, the heavily favored Howard County team entered last night's Class 3A state final at UMBC keenly in tune with the hazards of a letdown. The result was a 4-1 win over No. 10 Eastern Tech and the Hawks' second state championship in three years.
"I told them at the beginning of this game that [the Mavericks] were going to come out like they wanted to win this game, and they had to, as well," said Smedley. "I just told them to keep remembering how they felt during that Centennial game. I think that really motivates them, because they really wanted this one."
After faltering early, River Hill (18-1) got two goals each from juniors Rashida Walcott and Shannon Jackson to pull away.
Smedley said a workout at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field earlier in the week helped prepare her team for the high bounces and fast ball movement of UMBC's artificial turf.
"I don't know if they had more practice on this, but they seemed to know where the end line was, where the touch line was, where every line was," said Eastern Tech coach Wendy Butz.
River Hill broke a scoreless tie with three goals in a span of 14: 18 in the first half.
After Jackson put the Hawks on the board by knocking in Megan Buescher's throw-in with 18: 08 left in the first half, Walcott made it 2-0 by popping one over the head of goalie Shannon Markel, then assisted Jackson on a header to further extend the lead 3: 50 before the break.
The Mavericks (14-3) made it 3-1 with 22: 38 left when Jaime Stimmel knocked a direct kick off the crossbar, and teammate Beth Thomas scored off the rebound. They nearly cut the lead to one on an identical play minutes later, but Carrie Collins missed high.
But they were two of just four shots on the night for Eastern Tech, which had difficulty at times penetrating River Hill's defense, led by sweeper Natalie Klisas.
Eastern Tech started the season unranked, then pulled off upsets against Bel Air, Franklin and Leonardtown in the postseason to make its first-ever state finals appearance.
"I'm extremely proud of these girls," said Butz. "I knew they could [make it to the finals]. I don't think the whole year they knew they could do it. Every game we were the underdog, but we knew what we had to do to win it, and we did. Unfortunately, we didn't do it today."
For a River Hill team that was never completely satisfied with a co-championship two years ago following a finals tie with South River, the victory was also reason to celebrate.
"We finally won it," said Walcott. "Last time we were co-champs. Now we're just champs."