The situation facing Park View softball coach Beth Walker over the next few months -- guiding a defending state champion and managing the pressures of duplicating the feat -- is a familiar one. It's an entirely new experience for Potomac Falls boys' tennis coach John Mihalyo.
The Patriots won the Virginia AA title a year ago with a roster that included five seniors who graduated not long after claiming the trophy. But Walker has the benefit of experience and a few key players. In contrast, after Park View won the 1989 championship, she had to replace five seniors before repeating in 1990.
All-Met pitcher Karie Morrison, shortstop Veronica Skinner and second baseman Kristen Miller have played in two state tournaments in their three seasons. Junior centerfielder Cheryl Wilson and sophomore catcher Julia Dominguez started during last year's run, which ended with a 1-0, 12-inning victory over Broad Run.
Despite her team's experience, Walker remains wary.
"People are gunning for you, so you have to guard against that," she said. "It's a different game because people are out to get you."
The Panthers are new to the role of defending state champion after claiming the Virginia AA title with a dramatic 5-3 victory over Blacksburg. But like Park View, Mihalyo's squad will also draw on an experienced and talented group in its quest to win back-to-back titles. Senior Anthony Rinaldis and juniors John Mook and Jimmy Vaeth, who manned three of the top four singles positions a year ago, are back.
"I think the good thing we have is the same solid veterans back," Mihalyo said. "Not a lot of [state champions] can say that. . . . I think we have three of the best players in the state in double-A tennis."
Just as with the Patriots, the difficulty of matching last season's success is considerable for the Panthers. Handley, which has won Region II three times in five years, is a formidable foe. Every opponent on Potomac Falls's schedule, most notably the Judges on April 7, will crave the chance to knock off the defending state champion.
"Other teams may try to pull different things," Rinaldis said. ". . . They could do anything to get a little edge."
The battle to maintain focus is another peril in defending a title.
After advancing to the state semifinals in 2000, the Patriots, who returned nearly their entire roster the next season, were expected to go far again in the postseason. When Park View lost to Loudoun Valley in the 2001 Region II semifinals, the Patriots were shocked.
Last year "was an incredible win, and they still talk about it, but they're very self-disciplined," Walker said. "They know what's at stake. They know what can happen. They think a lot more about the 2001 season than anything."
Skinner said his team is "trying to come out with some confidence this year. But we can't be cocky, because we realized [in 2001] how easily someone else could get by us. It was that kind of mindset that hurt us. As much as we said we weren't [cocky], I knew we were, and we learned a big lesson."
Recent history in Loudoun County indicates that the quest for consecutive championships is far from easy. Broad Run won the state softball title in 2000 but joined Park View as a casualty in the region semifinals the next season. The Potomac Falls girls won the Virginia AA soccer title in 2000 and has reached, but lost in, the state final in the past two seasons.
"When you're winning things like that, teams want to beat you bad," said Panthers girls' soccer coach Kris Kelican, whose last two teams were defeated in the state finals by Broad Run (2001) and Western Albemarle (2002), teams the Panthers had beaten. "If they beat you, or even stay within one goal, that's big for them. It even carried over to last year for us.
"You still need to tell [your players] that even though you got by them last year, that this is a new year and that one game could change everything."