Broadneck’s Aislinn Probst (21) defends Sherwood mid Emily Kenul (11) in the Maryland 4A/3A girls’ lacrosse state championship on May 22, 2013. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

At the beginning of the 2013 season, the Sherwood girls’ lacrosse team did what every other high school team does before a game or a week or a month’s worth of games bring reality:

“We’re going to states!” they’d say, not totally joking, but not entirely serious either. “States this year!”

But states seemed far away and the chances remote, one of those dreams most teams — particularly those from relative lacrosse newcomers in Montgomery County — don’t entertain for long.

Then, in mid-May, the Warriors looked up and found themselves in the Maryland 4A/3A state title game against perennial power Broadneck.

“Everyone was like ‘oh, we’re going to states this year!’,” Sherwood senior Natalie Sebeck said. “No one really thought anything of it. Then all of a sudden, we were there.”

Still impressed by “playing on those kind of fields against those caliber teams,” as Sebeck put it, still firmly in happy-to-be-there mode as the first Montgomery County girls’ team ever to win a game in the state tournament, the Warriors fell 21-5 to Broadneck in the championship game.

But this season, led by Johns Hopkins-bound speedster Emily Kenul, and fellow captains Sebeck and Kristen Lauda, Sherwood’s goals have changed.

“Last year our goal was to be the best in the county,” said Lauda, who built on a strong junior year by emerging as a go-to scorer and draw-control star this season. “This year, [Coach Kelly Hughes] is saying we know we can be the best in the county, so we want to challenge ourselves to beat people in the rest of the state, not just in our county.”

Having seen Broadneck in that title game, the Warriors (9-0) have a better sense of what they’re up against. Sebeck said “what really shocked” Sherwood about Broadneck was the Bruins’ depth.

“Typically, teams that we see in public schools where you can’t recruit, there are a couple key players and you can focus on them and that dictates how the rest of the game goes,” she said. “With Broadneck, every one of their girls was Division I caliber athlete. It was great for us to see that and face that competition, and I think now we’re more ready for teams with that depth. I think we have that depth, too — I’m comfortable with any one of our girls on the field.”

According to Kenul, Sherwood’s leading scorer and “by far the best lacrosse player I’ve seen in a long time,” as Hughes described her, the Warriors now understand how to counter that depth better, too.

“When we play these teams we need to take advantage of every possession, because it may be more difficult to get the ball and keep it away from them,” Kenul said. “But I also think we learned by getting there that these are teams that we can compete with if we continue to work at it.”

Part of the challenge in readying themselves for teams like Broadneck is the still-growing Montgomery County girls’ lacrosse scene. While Hughes and Sebeck said emphatically that the teams around Sherwood are improving dramatically by the season, the Warriors still play games in which the outcome is largely a foregone conclusion. Sometimes, their biggest challenges and opportunities for improvement in a given week come at practice. Sometimes, the Warriors practice before games to make sure they don’t go days without challenging themselves.

That daily growth is crucial, as the Warriors lost several key seniors last year, but have a roster loaded with underclassmen ready to plug in and continue the team’s emergence, including versatile sophomore Taylor Andrews and classmate and defender Kristen Russell, who Hughes said would be a starting midfielder if it weren’t for the logjam of talented upperclassmen like Kenul playing there now. Connor Ganey, Ella Booz, Delaney McMenamin and Karleigh Gibbons have also stepped in and made major impacts.

“We have such a young team — 10 sophomores — and any one of them can step out on the field and play like a senior,” Sebeck said. “They know how to step it up.”

The first out-of-county test of the Warriors’ 2014 season comes Friday when Sherwood travels to No. 3 Good Counsel, a game for which they’ve prepared as if it were a state tournament game. Regardless of outcome, Hughes said, the experience of preparing for and playing against a nationally-ranked lacrosse power has been beneficial to her team, which is realizing quickly that the main difference between its potential and those of state powers is tradition.

“We’re both high school teams, we both practice, we both work hard,” Lauda said. “But it’s the culture where they live that people have been playing longer. At Sherwood, people come in as freshmen, never picked up a stick, and start learning from there. So I think they have more experience than us overall in each individual player.”

While one year’s run to the state title game doesn’t erase that difference, their 2013 success did show the Warriors that 50 minutes on a lacrosse field don’t have to be dictated by a decorated lacrosse history. Plus, tradition has to start somewhere.

“We just have to have the confidence that we can do it,” Sebeck said. “Everything fell into place this year, we brought it every game. I think we can do that again this year, and the difference is we know we can. We know we can compete when everyone is playing their hardest from the minute the game starts to the minute the game ends. I think we’re ready.”

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