River Hill boys' soccer coach Bill Stara offered his team a piece of advice before players took the field Saturday for their Maryland 3A semifinal against undefeated Fallston.
"Remember that the state champion is still playing," he said. "And it has an anniversary to keep."
Stara was referring to his defending state champion Hawks, who have already been to six state finals -- winning five -- in the nine-year history of the school.
"We feel the state tournament is part of our season, and we expect to make it there because the players who were here before us did, and now it's our turn," senior forward Theo Byrd said. "It's a game, but to us, it's an anniversary because we look forward to it every year."
The Hawks won't have to wait any longer. After posting a 1-0 victory over Fallston at Tuscarora High, River Hill advanced to the state final against Severna Park at 5 p.m. tomorrow at University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Stara had reminded the players throughout the week leading up to the semifinal -- just as he had during the second half of the season -- to "fix themselves and do a little bit more," and what he got in return was one of its best performances of the season.
Justin White did more offensively than he'd done all season by scoring his first varsity goal, as the junior defender lofted a corner kick into a swift wind and the ball got past the goalkeeper with 8 minutes 41 seconds left in the first half.
"This was my chance to do something to help our team, and I put the ball in play and something good happened," White said. "I think getting the first goal really gave us a lot of confidence."
River Hill made White's goal stand by shutting down a prolific Cougar offense, with junior goalie Matt Moss stopping 10 shots -- including several from just a few yards away. Fallston had outscored opponents 63-3 going into the game.
"Any time you step onto the field with the River Hill badge on your chest, you expect to win," senior midfielder Nathan Ong said. "River Hill is always everyone's target, but for the last three years, we're the ones going to UMBC to play for the state title."
But River Hill won't be the only county team that will be playing during the final weekend of high school soccer. Centennial's seventh-ranked girls' team will seek its state-public-school-record seventh championship after posting a 3-0 victory over C.M. Wright in the semifinals. The Eagles will face fifth-ranked Bethesda-Chevy Chase at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at UMBC.
The Atholton boys' team will play for its first state title in 14 years, facing Eastern Tech at noon Saturday at UMBC. The Raiders posted a 3-1 semifinal victory over Liberty (Md.) last week.
Atholton doesn't have the tradition of River Hill, but the Raiders are playing on just as high a level. They have allowed just one goal in their past seven games and will enter the state final having outscored postseason opponents 9-1.
"We lost to River Hill and to Fallston during the regular season," Atholton Coach Roch DeFrances said, "but the way we are playing right now, I wish we could see them again."
"When we didn't get seeded in the region tournament, we took on the underdog role and wanted to prove we're still the best team in region, and that's what we did," said senior midfielder Andrew Chandler, whose team lost in the state semifinals last year. "We expected to go far this season, but we never knew how far. Now that we're here, this is an opportunity we can't let slip through our fingers."
Atholton's girls' team will have to wait at least another season to earn its first postseason victory. The Raiders, making their first state tournament appearance, gave up a goal in the second minute and never recovered in a 1-0 loss to Middletown.
"I think that before the game we tried to get pumped up, and then the goal in the first two minutes was just too hard to come back from that," said sophomore Atholton forward Kate Nicholson, whose team finished 9-7-1. "We still made history at Atholton, and I'm proud of that."