The bus ride home from any high school playoff game provides an obvious clue to what transpired in the previous few hours.
In the journey to the Class 3A state championship game last season, the Mount Hebron boys soccer team experienced more than its share of jubilant joy rides. As the 10th-seeded team in the East region, the Vikings went on the road and returned victorious five times to earn a spot in the season's final game at UMBC Stadium.
In the return trip to Ellicott City that night, however, a collective hush told the disappointing story of the title match: Watkins Mill 3, Mount Hebron 1.
The silence on the bus gave then-junior center midfielder Lucas Rose time for thought, and one thing came to mind.
"I was thinking about what it was going to be like next year and how much I wanted to get a state title my senior year," he said.
As senior seasons are set to begin across the Baltimore area, players are preparing to step up, take on leadership responsibilities, and chase their last chance to bring home a championship.
For some seniors, like Rose and his Mount Hebron teammates, getting so close and falling short increases the desire to complete the quest for the title.
"As a senior, I know I have to be more vocal and I'm in charge of making sure everybody is working hard every day," said the Vikings' Stone Chen, a three-year starter on defense. "[From last year,] I just learned that it's OK to make a mistake as long as you keep playing hard, keep your head up and never give up. We were the underdogs last year. We proved a lot of people wrong and I'd like to do that again."
Most coaches will tell you no matter how many talented players are on their roster, the season will only go as far as the seniors take it.
"Seniors are your emotional leaders and it's their last stand, so you hope they're hungry and come in looking to win a championship," said Loyola coach Lee Tschantret, whose Dons will be one of the top contenders in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference.
"From year to year in high school, everyone makes a big difference. But when they come back as seniors, they're young men and have the perspective of a young man. They're a little more serious, physically stronger and I think the gravity of the situation hits them," Tschantret said. "They know this is their last shot at it and their last chance playing with these guys. And hopefully they've developed that camaraderie and bond that it becomes like a family and they want to put it all together for the special year."
The past two seasons for the C. Milton Wright girls team have been promising only to come up short in the end. The Mustangs lost both times in the Class 3A state semifinals with each deciding goal coming late in the second half.
Senior defender Abby Smucker, a four-year starter and All-Metro first-team selection last season, is doing everything she can to make sure the Mustangs take the final step this year. Earlier this month, she asked an assistant coach if she could hold a team meeting once the final cuts were made. With 10 starters returning and a senior-laden team, C. Milton Wright appears to be ready to clear the last hurdle.
The sting from close losses the past two years provides added incentive, but Mustangs coach Paul Austin has made sure the team knows each season takes on its own identity.
For Smucker, this final one can't get started soon enough.
"I know the whole team is willing to work really hard and do what they can so we can make it to the next game and hopefully win that state championship, she said. "Having seen [last year's] seniors leave with a semifinal game loss like that is tough and this being my senior year, I want to leave it all out there and go out with a bang."
The Archbishop Spalding girls have made it to six Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship games in the past seven years, winning three titles. Along the way, coach Bob Dieterle has seen a number of seniors take their turn in the lead role. Each new senior class has been able to take what it learned in previous years, maintaining the program's success.
"The thing I see right away is the willingness and eagerness to assume that leadership role," Dieterle said. The first thing is 'Wow, we're now the oldest kids and people are going to be looking at us and we have to produce. And the second thing that hits them is this is it for them in high school."
Spalding senior forward Mo Ostrowski knows it is her turn. She had a taste of winning a championship when she was called up for the playoffs in her freshman year and scored a goal in the title game. But her last two experiences in the championship didn't go as planned because rival McDonogh beat the Cavaliers both times.
Much like the Mount Hebron boys, the bus ride for the Cavaliers was mostly quiet following last year's setback. But there were some whispers in the back, where a bunch of the team's talented juniors were sitting together and thinking ahead.
"We started talking about wanting it, how we're not going to settle and we promised each other we're all going to work for this," Ostrowski said. "We want it to be our year."