Mike O'Brien did not go to school on Monday, the day after Stone Bridge's football season ended in a 26-14 loss to Lafayette in the Virginia AA Division 4 semifinals. The Bulldogs' junior quarterback injured his lower back on a third-down run in the first quarter but played the rest of the game. He was battered all afternoon and held to a negative rushing total.

Soreness in his back, plus the normal day-after aches and stinging disappointment of a season-ending defeat, contributed to his inability to climb stairs at home, much less walk the halls at school.

"I was so sore, I couldn't really move," said O'Brien, who passed for 133 yards, mostly under heavy pressure. "I just felt this tearing pain after that run, and I thought the game was over for me."

The back injury is not serious, however, and the aches will subside. Stone Bridge's players, who spent the beginning of the week ruing the season's end, may emerge a better team.

"We're depressed because one minute we're playing for states, and the next minute we're turning in our stuff," junior linebacker Danny Jones said. "A lot of people came up to us, congratulating us, telling us we shouldn't be that down because we got so far and nobody thought we could. It's still disappointing, though. I thought we were better than them. We just didn't make the plays."

Seventeen seniors will graduate from a team that won the first two playoff games in school history. Senior linemen Tommy Cole, Matt Mirch and Chris Mogin paved the way for two 1,000-yard rushers -- O'Brien and junior running back Landon Gouveia.

Linemen Jomal Burke and Darryl McDowell and linebackers Trevor Caskey, Allen Patton and Richard Donnelly were the backbone of a defense that allowed seven fourth-quarter points in the playoffs.

"To make it this far in a third-year school, that's pretty amazing," Donnelly said. "But as a senior, you don't want it to end. You want to go all the way."

With the season finished, players can reminisce on their accomplishments and look forward to next year. O'Brien rushed for 1,044 yards, passed for 1,294 and was named offensive player of the year in the AA Dulles District and Region II. Gouveia finished with 1,002 rushing yards, including a 65-yard touchdown run against Lafayette. Both are expected back.

Sophomore tight end Brian Calloway emerged as O'Brien's go-to target in the playoffs, catching six passes in three games for 144 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore wide receiver Sean Henry had 10 catches on the season and caught his first scoring pass against Lafayette while filling in for sophomore Sean Ryan, the Bulldogs' leading receiver with 29 catches. He was out with strep throat.

All three should return, along with junior Andrew Winslow, who totaled 690 yards this season.

"I'm hopeful, but I'm not confident yet," O'Brien said. "Let's see what guys do in the weight room, how committed they are to the team. The [junior varsity] season got canceled, and it's a big jump from riding the bench to starting on varsity, so we'll have to see."

Though the offense must replace only three starters, the defense has five holes. Only the secondary will be untouched by graduation, with Gouveia, Ryan and junior safety Chris Coker returning.

The most important change for next season is increased expectations.

"I never thought we would go as far as we did this year," Jones said. "I knew we were good, but we won the region, and I never thought we would do that.

"Lots of people will be picking us to win the district [next year]. We will be on top of the rankings in the preseason stuff. It got to our heads two years ago, and we choked, pretty much. We can't let that happen next year."

Lafayette's Todd Reyher tries to break away from Stone Bridge's Landon Gouveia during the state semifinal game."I'm hopeful, but I'm not confident yet," Bulldog Mike O'Brien says of next season after the loss to Lafayette. The junior passed and ran for more than 1,000 yards this year.