By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
BERRYVILLE -- The Clarke County Eagles were timid, a bit shy, for the most part unwilling to trot across the turf field at George Mason and indulge in the cheers and applause from the Eagles faithful.
Clarke County had just lost 2-1 to George Mason in the Bull Run District tournament championship. At the time, it didn't seem like a moment worth celebrating, especially on the field of a bitter rival.
The Eagles slowly and bashfully stepped over to the stands, received the applause, then quickly scampered back to their bench.
Clarke County coach Terry Ellis, The Northern Virginia Daily's Girls Soccer Coach of the Year, was perplexed by his team's diffidence.
All season he'd told his Eagles they were good enough to compete with George Mason, to compete with the best teams in the state, to make it to the Group A state tournament.
And yet after playing George Mason to the brink, and allowing the Mustangs their narrowest margin of victory against a Group A opponent, the Eagles still lacked swagger.
With only two weeks left in the season, Clarke County was very much still searching for an identity.
"I definitely made them go over and get the recognition, because they earned it," Ellis said. "That's something you should be proud of, and they deserved that -- to get that recognition from their fans, who have been there for four years, rooting them on."
And that's really what the theme of this past season has been. Yes, there have been minor themes: Play George Mason tough, make it to states, send the Eagles' 11 seniors out with a bang.
But to be proud of a season, to find the good in every game, even in a loss, is something Clarke County hasn't been able to do since 2007, the last time the Eagles played in the Group A state tournament.
Ellis made sure to change all that. He recognized immediately the talent he had this season, the 11 seniors, the stout defense, the prolific offense.
He told the Eagles to play each game with a small chip on their shoulder; told them that, this season, Clarke County was the team to beat.
And it was. Clarke County only had to realize it.
But first, Ellis had to guide Clarke County through a series of hurdles: Heavy spring rains meant the Eagles faced long lulls between games, and were prone to lose focus; add to that back-to-back games against Madison County to close out the regular season, and the pressure put on so many seniors to play up to their capabilities in their final season.
No wonder the Eagles at times felt timid.
"That was a lot of pressure for those girls to handle, but they always had the potential, and they always had that ability," Ellis said. "I think a lot of it was a mental block for them, and just to be able to give them positive reinforcement, telling them 'You can do this,' and 'You're the team to beat,' [gave] them that confidence that they needed to be able to go into games and win."
Clarke County beat every team on its schedule but George Mason. It tore through the district regular season, the Bull Run tournament, the Region B tournament, and earned a state tournament berth for the first time in three years.
The Eagles won their state quarterfinal and semifinal matches by a combined score of 10-0.
And after each game, Ellis told his team to be proud.
"We know what we did bad in a game, but he turns it around and says, 'We did this well,'" Clarke County forward Aubrey Fletcher said. "He turns it around and makes it positive.
"He put it in the back of our head that we're better, and that we can do this if we work really hard, and we have the talent."
And so, even though Clarke County lost to George Mason in the state championship game, the Eagles eagerly displayed their pride.
They skipped across the field at Radford University, site of the Group A state final, and with smiles and confidence they waved to those fans who have been there for four years, rooting them on.
And they indulged in the cheers and applause.
"They didn't win the championship, but they should have gotten that cheer, and they should have gotten that applause for that great effort," Ellis said. "I thought it was a great thing, and they were finally pleased with themselves at the end of the state championship.
"They knew that they went out, they played the game, and they left it on the field."