Moments before taking the court against Oxon Hill for its Class 4A volleyball state championship, Coach Juanita Murdock-Milani's Glen Burnie squad handed her a volleyball.
Inscribed with the personal signature and a brief dedication from each of her 10 players, this wasn't just a run-of-the-mill game ball.
Nor was it a mere symbol of the Gophers' glorious season, which would end just 55 minutes later with a 16-14, 15-9, 15-6 victory over Oxon Hill for Murdock-Milani's first state title.
For the 13-year Glen Burnie coach, an easy choice for the 1990 Anne Arundel County Sun Volleyball Coach of the Year, the gift was representative of much, much more. So much, that Murdock-Milani's husband nearly had to pry it from her hands just before the start of the game.
"I didn't want to let the ball go," said Murdock-Milani, in a statement that could be applied to her reluctance for the season to end.
Glen Burnie's straight-set victory on Nov. 17 improved its record to 18-0 and ended a season in which the county champions lost just one game in 54.
Six-time defending county champion Severna Park had its winning streak snapped at 87 games by Glen Burnie during the regular season.
The scene before the state championship game serves as a perfect illustration of Murdock-Milani's dedication to her team.
"From time to time I was teased for being too emotionally attached to the players," said Murdock-Milani, whose career record is 131-58.
"I've even memorized the exact birthdays of the players or at least what month they're in. I can't begin tell you how much time this team has spent together or how close we are."
Yes, but the Gophers' sentimental "thank yous" can.
Murdock-Milani said that one player, senior Stacey Gilligan, wrote: "Thanks for teaching me how to be responsible."
"Thanks for believing in me when I didn't," scribbled senior Melanie Scharf, the team's captain.
Senior Kelly Miller, who recovered from a midseason wrist fracture to play in the last four games, wrote: "Thanks for helping me through the injuries."
Murdock-Milani and her players attribute the team's success to the sister-like relationship between them.
"She's a great person, she really cares," said Scharf. "She's always there if you need to talk, and she's very sociable."
Senior Christy Hutson said, "With all of the returning players on the team, I think a lot of coaches would have put more pressure on us or got upset when we made mistakes. Or when we had a bad game or practice, but she never did. She always let us work out our problems ourselves."
"After the (Oxon Hill) game, someone approached me and said 'You don't look so happy,' " said Murdock-Milani. "I had mixed feelings about the game. I was glad we had won the title, but I was sad that the season was over."