Most members of the Fairfax Cobras had played soccer against, and occasionally alongside, each other for more than a decade, but it was not until last year that they banded together to form a competitive girls under-19 team in Northern Virginia. It usually takes several years to build a soccer team of national caliber, yet last month the Cobras found themselves playing for a national championship.

The club's existence was a short one, as many of the Cobras move into collegiate play this fall, but they left a significant mark in their time together. The Cobras will disband knowing they were just an overtime period away from winning the girls national under-19 championship.

The title game in Denver, a 3-1 loss to the Dallas Sting, was a sad, soggy game for the Cobras. Both teams had trouble staying on their feet and one Dallas player got her cleat caught in the five-inch-deep mud as she was running downfield. When she went back to retrieve the shoe, it was lost forever.

But the worst slip on the rain-drenched field came with 56 seconds left in regulation as Dallas took advantage of two fallen Cobra players and tied the game at 1, sending it into overtime. The Cobras had led since early in the first period.

During that last crucial minute, Gayle Smith, 17, and Kim Crabbe, a sophomore at George Mason, slipped while a Dallas player had the ball on the outside. Then, Smith said, "the ball kind of stopped in the mud." The Dallas player had a wide-open shot.

"I guess it would be fair to say that during regulation it was pretty much even," said Wendy Gebauer, the Cobras' high-scoring striker who will play on scholarship this fall for defending NCAA champion University of North Carolina. "In overtime they beat us fair and square."

The muddy conditions developed from a thunderstorm -- there was a tornado nearby -- the night before that followed the Cobras' 3-2 victory over the Seattle entry.

"It was a very disappointing loss," Fairfax Coach Howard Gebauer said of the final, "but it was also one hell of a year."

To get to the tournament, the team from the Washington Area Girls Soccer (WAGS) League beat four East Coast squads in the Region 1 championships.

In the fall, Birthe Hegstad, from Langley, will join Wendy Gebauer as a teammate and roommate at North Carolina. Cathy Cassady of Springfield earned a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts. Celia Gillen and Crabbe, both sophomores, will remain in the area, playing for George Mason.

Other starters on the 16-member team leaving for college are Stanford-bound Christy McDevitt from Arlington and Kelly Wirz, a freshman at Radford University.

And all can look back and realize, as Smith puts it, "I guess second in the nation isn't too bad."