As members of the River Hill girls' soccer team rode their bus back to Clarksville after the Hawks' season-ending loss to Severna Park in the Maryland 3A East Region final Nov. 7, there was silence. No one talked, and more than a few tears were shed.

River Hill's three-year streak of consecutive state championships was over. So was the Hawks' 28-game unbeaten streak, a run that dated from Oct. 2, 2001.

Perhaps more significant was the end of another streak, one held by Howard County. Until this year, at least one county girls' team had reached the state semifinals in every year since the current tournament format was set in 1989.

Five county teams have won 18 state titles since 1989, accounting for 38 percent of championships won in Maryland during that time.

Until this fall, Howard County teams had won girls' state titles in every year but three, and in every year since the state expanded to four classifications for girls' soccer in 1998.

"I don't think anyone talked, and on the way home, there was some crying," River Hill Coach Joan Kelso-Smedley said. "I think after a couple days they realized they had a good year and a good season and it's just hard for them now, especially the seniors, but I am sure the girls coming back next year will definitely remember this."

Several county girls' soccer coaches said their postseason struggles were a product of the growing popularity of the sport in the state, and does not reflect a decline in the quality of county soccer.

Always popular in Howard County, girls' soccer became an official high school sport in 1982, but it wasn't until 1989 that state championships were awarded in two classifications: Class 4A/3A and Class 2A/1A. Hammond won the Class 2A/1A title that year.

The number of Maryland schools playing girls' soccer has nearly doubled since 1989, and interest in club soccer has grown as well, extending to Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, with the more skilled players forming the core of high school teams that were nonexistent a decade ago.

Montgomery County, which had previously played girls' soccer in the spring, began playing for state championships in 1998, adding 23 teams from a soccer hotbed to the state mix.

"I don't really see it as a drop-off in the level of play in the county," said Mike Williams, Glenelg's athletic director and girls' soccer coach. "The rest of the state has caught up. I don't think the level of soccer in the county has dropped off at all. I think it's pretty darn good."

Two county teams -- River Hill and Centennial -- were ranked in The Post's Top 10 for the majority of the season, and Atholton, Glenelg and Wilde Lake all entered the postseason with shots of making it to the state semifinals.

River Hill lost in overtime to Severna Park, and Centennial -- last year's Class 2A co-champion -- was defeated by Middletown in a shootout in the 2A West Region semifinals. Wilde Lake lost to Severna Park several days before the Falcons beat River Hill, and Glenelg lost in the 2A West Region quarterfinals to Century, the eventual state champion.

"A lot can happen in a shootout, and we just got beat [6-5]," Centennial Coach Mike Senisi said. "They were a good team and we knew that going in."

Of Maryland's four eventual state champions -- Quince Orchard in Class 4A, Severna Park in Class 3A, Century in Class 2A and Poolesville in Class 1A -- only Severna Park had won a state title before.

"It actually may be starting to balance out a little bit," said Don Disney, the county's coordinator of athletics. "From the inception of girls' soccer in the state, Howard County was there. I think it was maybe an anomaly for this year and we should be back, but I do think the competition and the coaching is probably getting pretty good around the state.

"I think we will still be in there each and every year competitively, but I am not sure we will dominate."

The county learned that lesson the tough way this year.

"It's the luck of where you get placed [in the playoff seedings] and where you play," said Kelso-Smedley, whose River Hill team had trouble with Severna Park on the narrow field at Howard High but still out-shot the Falcons. "All the teams out there are good."

"There is more parity within soccer and it has grown in Maryland to where there are other areas that have good feeder programs and good club teams and they are developing traditions at their high schools, and that is a good thing," Williams said. "I just see an expansion of girls' soccer across the state. It will get harder and harder, and it's going to happen to the boys, too."

It has happened to the boys. Last year, Howard County boys' teams were shut out of a state title for only the fourth time since 1979. The good news for girls' soccer coaches is that the boys bounced back: The River Hill boys won this season's Class 3A championship, and Oakland Mills won the Class 1A title.

Mandy Paizs, right, Centennial failed to defend 2A state title. Five county teams have won 18 state titles since 1989.River Hill's Jackie Stromberg, Jamie Goertler, Centennial's Beth Foley eye the ball in an October game. Hawks lost to Severna Park in 3A East final. Eagles lost to Middletown in 2A West semifinals.