Everyone who ever played high school sports, star and non-star alike, has experienced that sad moment of final competition.
For the few truly great players, like Centennial soccer superstar Meg Caro, who is headed to William and Mary College next year, the ending is especially poignant -- even more so when it comes in the form of a regional playoff loss to an archrival.
Oakland Mills beat host Centennial in the Region IV, Class 3A/4A semifinals Wednesday, 3-2, thus ending Caro's high school career.
But Caro, one of just three Eagle seniors, along with sweeper Meghan Hughes and goalie Jenny Kling, could draw satisfaction from knowing she had led her young team to a fine 10-3 season.
Caro's talent was pegged from the start -- she made second team all-county as a freshman. During her four-year career, the Eagles compiled a 50-8-1 record, sharing the county title with Oakland Mills in 1987, Caro's freshman year.
Centennial's nemesis certainly is Oakland Mills, which has won or shared the county title five straight years while Centennial played the role of perennial runner-up except for 1987. Wednesday's loss was Centennial's sixth straight to the Scorpions.
The Eagles have lost only five games in the past two seasons, and four of those were to Oakland Mills.
But Caro, who scored a goal and was again dominant at midfield Wednesday despite a severe leg cramp that hampered her in the last 20 minutes, could walk away with her head held high.
After the final whistle, she collapsed to a sitting position on the ground, knees clutched to her forehead, and shed a few tears. You'd expect emotion from such a competitor.
Not long afterward, however, she recovered and spoke with class and composure to a lone reporter.
"I'm really disappointed we couldn't pull it off," she said. "But I'm not devastated. I look across the field at Mia (Dammen of Oakland Mills) or Stephanie (Magro) and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them."
Caro plays club soccer with many of the Oakland Mills players on a team called the Blast. Its coach is Oakland Mills coach Cindy Odell. So Caro is a friend and teammate to the players who beat her team.
Her career had several parallels to those of Dammen and Magro, who are Oakland Mills' best players. All are seniors, and all were second-team all-county as freshmen and have been first-team ever since. Like Centennial during Caro's career, the Scorps have an awesome record of 49-6-3 during Dammen's and Magro's careers.
Of all players, Dammen has dealt Centennial the most grief. It was Dammen who beat Centennial with a late goal earlier this year, 1-0. It was Dammen who beat Centennial with a goal in the 78th minute last year, 1-0.
Wednesday Dammen was flu-stricken, only a shadow of her normal dominant self, restricted to playing forward, where she wouldn't run the entire field, and well-marked by Eagles freshman Jaime Fountaine.
Caro and Dammen had warred in the first game this year. Wednesday it was Caro and Magro who battled.
"Stephanie played real well," Caro said. Magro scored one of Oakland Mills' three goals.
Luck plays a big part in many soccer games. And Wednesday that was especially true. The Scorpions came up the lucky team in a game that was played hard from start to finish by both sides.
The Eagles first drew blood in the game's fifth minute, when sophomore forward Kelly Butler ran under a chip pass in the penalty area and tapped it in.
Centennial was fired up and ready to break its Oakland Mills jinx.
But then the bad luck began. A Centennial player Hughes, during a melee in front of the net, kicked in Oakland Mills' first goal in the 34th minute, allowing the Scorpions to tie, 1-1. Oakland Mills' Danette Lemerise was the closest Scorpion to the ball and received credit for the goal.
In the second half, luck continued to betray the Eagles. Sophomore forward Vicki Brunt's header off a corner kick bounced off the far post in the 42nd minute.
In the 44th minute, Eagles' sophomore forward Paige Netelbladt shot into an almost open net after Scorpions' goalie Jenny Golding had fallen down, but the ball was kicked away by fullback Alice Iskra.
Centennial's luck got even worse. Magro hit a hard shot right at Centennial goalie Kling's chest from 10 yards out in he 46th minute. Kling caught it, then dropped it, and the ball rolled into the goal for a score and a 2-1 Oakland Mills lead that the Scorpions never relinquished.
That score held up until the 75th minute, when Lemerise of Oakland Mills kicked in a loose ball on the goal line off Tyann Blissett's corner kick for a 3-1 Scorpions' lead.
Caro blasted in a long, direct kick with 30 seconds left in the game, a fitting last gesture -- sort of like Ted Williams homering in his last at-bat.
Caro is so widely respected a player that several Oakland Mills fans hollered appreciative comments to her. "You played your heart out Meg," they yelled.
So she did. And so did both teams in a matchup that is always a pleasure to watch.