By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
STEPHENS CITY -- As their season passed, the Sherando Warriors girls soccer team, gathering at midfield, with a few stragglers openly lamenting the season's end, waited for head coach Rob Kilmer to huddle the team together one last time.
A few sullen girls cried, at varying degrees, while others tried to carry on some sort of conversation.
Sherando senior Brittini Dennis, the school's all-time leading goal scorer and points leader, was caught somewhere in between: It's difficult to decide, especially following a 5-2 loss to Western Albemarle in the Region II quarterfinals, whether to praise or mourn the end of perhaps the greatest career in Sherando soccer history.
Dennis was one of the few girls that wandered off from the main group of Warriors. She looked to the sky, then to the ground, then back to the sky, perhaps a series of movements meant to ward off the comprehension that her Sherando career, which spanned 70 goals and 52 wins, was over.
A length of purple cloth held back her hair, a strength of will held back her tears, at least for a while. A few fell, then her eyes dried.
When asked to sum up her career, Dennis immediately spoke of her team.
"Wonderful team," she said. "We started off rough, but we ended up learning the chemistry of each other, and trying to know where we benefit, and everything else.
"It was a great year."
The Warriors finished their season 12-3-3 and were the first Sherando team to win the Northwestern District regular season, then the district tournament as the No. 1 seed. Dennis' senior class is the winningest class in program history.
But Dennis' four-year career at Sherando is quite unlike that of fellow senior Lainie Weadon, whose senior season was the only one not bogged down by injury.
Weadon, in her first three years with Sherando, saw the field in only spotty instances. She was named team captain in February, was Sherando's second-leading scorer this season, and was named first team all-Northwestern District.
Nevertheless, Weadon and Dennis and the rest of the Sherando girls fluttered with nervous anticipation in the minutes leading up to the match with Western Albemarle, the Jefferson District runner up.
Western Albemarle senior keeper Lexy Eckerle came into Monday's regional match with 14 shutouts on the season, 12 of them consecutive.
Sherando sophomore Morgan Sirbaugh ended Eckerle's streak in the 35th minute, when Weadon sent her a free kick from the right of the box. Sirbaugh missed on the header, gathered the loose ball, then nudged a shot into an empty net to tie the match, 1-1.
Sirbaugh's goal was the first scored on Western Albemarle since April 19.
Only seven minutes into the second half, Dennis scored yet another goal on Western Albemarle, which has given up two goals only one other time this year.
In the 47th minute, Dennis flew down the left flank, then cut back to the top of the box. Two Western Albemarle defenders lay in the grass behind Dennis, but a third closed in from the right.
Dennis settled the ball, whistled a low shot to the right post, and gave Sherando a 2-1 lead.
"That's just a lot of relief, scoring on an amazing goalie," Dennis said. "She had decent saves, they're a great team, but just getting that on a great team, that's probably the best team we've played in a long time.
"It's a good thing and a good accomplishment."
And for maybe the first time all evening, there was a very real sense, perhaps to a fault, that Sherando might walk off its own pitch victorious.
"When we were up 2-1, I guess you could say it was almost too confident, too soon," Weadon said. "That's when we let it slip, because I think we all felt that way."
Over the course of the next six minutes, Western Albemarle tied the match, then took the lead. In the final 11 minutes Western Albemarle scored twice more, flying down the flanks and feeding crosses inside the six.
After Kilmer broke the post-game huddle, no Sherando player left the pitch. Most girls sat down in the Stephens City grass, reluctant to accept the coming of the end, unwilling to end the run of this 2010 team.
"It hasn't hit me yet," Dennis said. "Now it will."
Kilmer huddled his girls together for another talk, again near midfield.
And even as the Sherando crowd congealed at the bottom of the bleachers to offer both congratulations and condolences, there the Sherando Warriors remained.