CATONSVILLE -- Until the very end of the Brunswick girls soccer team's remarkable season, it all seemed surreal to the Railroaders.
Back in August, at the start of preseason practice, the players joked about playing for a state championship, feeling it was more fantasy than possibility. The Railroaders had never even played for a regional championship.
Yet there they were Saturday afternoon at UMBC, battling a formidable Manchester Valley team, one that had beaten them in the season opener, for the Class 1A championship. Nobody was joking anymore.
"I just thought they had more potential than any team that I've worked with," coach Dave Herber said. "I think they only half believed it at first. But, the more we went along, the better they played and I think they did realize they had the potential to win the region (1A West). That's what I told them, 'If you win the region, anything can happen.'"
Reality eventually set in. Much like the way the season began, Manchester Valley was simply the better team, scoring a goal 30 seconds into an eventual 4-1 victory that earned the Mavericks the first team state title in school history.
But the result could not diminish everything Brunswick had accomplished this season: winning 13 out of 17 games, including a victory over fellow Frederick County state finalist Middletown (2A), shutting out MVAL Antietam champion Boonsboro in the regional semifinals, prevailing in penalty kicks to beat Northern Garrett for the regional title, coming from behind to beat Sparrows Point in the state semifinals and, generally, just creating a sense of belief when there was none before.
The team's spirit remained intact. Once the immediate disappointment faded after the game, the Railroaders realized, "We came (pretty) far," according to senior goalkeeper Tara Shriver.
In the postgame press conference, after the moderator offered some words of consolation to Herber and the Brunswick players, senior midfielder Maria Bertoni quickly chimed in with, "We're good."
Bertoni, not wanting to miss the final game of her high school career on such an important stage, played with a torn tendon in her right foot, which she suffered in the victory over Sparrows Point. She accepted her runners-up trophy with a walking boot on the foot and, after the championship presentation, was piggybacked across the field by Shriver, her fellow team captain.
"We wrapped (the foot) up tight. (Maria) had been cleared by a doctor, but we knew she was in pain," Herber said. "We knew going in that everyone would have to step up their game to make up for the fact that she was not 100 percent. It was the last game of her senior year. So, I really couldn't keep her out of the game. I had to yank her (near the end). She would have battled and stayed in the whole game if I let her."
After falling behind 4-0, Brunswick scored with five minutes and 10 seconds left in the game on a penalty kick by Dara Demich, who finished the season with 24 goals. She scored every goal for the Railroaders in the playoffs.
The penalty was a result of a Manchester Valley hand-ball, created by pressure after Demich lofted a free kick into the box.
A junior and the county's leading goal-scorer, Demich is one of the reasons to be optimistic that the Railroaders can make another run like this next season. It's no longer comical to think the Brunswick girls can win a state title.
"We've got 14 juniors coming back. So, we should be strong again next season," Herber said. "We'll miss our seniors. That's for sure. But we have a lot of great kids coming back. So, there's hope that they'll (improve) and keep the momentum going."