The year itself was far from typical, but the ending looked strangely familiar.
The smiles, and hugs, the joyful tears -- how else could the Northeast softball team conclude its season?
The Eagles (19-3) made it an unprecedented four straight Class 2Astate championships, and seven in the last 10 years, with Friday's 1-0 victory over previously unbeaten Damascus of Montgomery County at Upton Park.
Was there ever a doubt? Perhaps not against the top-seeded Hornets (19-1) -- at least not after senior pitcher Kristy Zulkaescaped a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning -- but make no mistake, the seventh title was a chore.
A 5-0 loss to rival Chesapeake on May 8 left the Eagles 15-3 heading into the region playoffs. Not bad for most teams, but a crisis of sorts for a program that had reeled off 64 straight wins before an extra-inning loss to Glen Burnie last month.
Worst, the Eagles staggered into the postseason having dropped two of their last three games. Their air of invincibility was thinning with each shaky outing.
Then came the regions, and the resurgence of both a struggling offense and ace pitcher Zulka. The tandem combined to outscore opponents, 23-1, in the season's final four games.
"I don't think any team is invincible in this county. Going through our county undefeated is a major accomplishment," said Northeast coach Lynn Pitonzo.
"I knew they could do it (win the state championship). They started to have doubts during the season, but we gotthem back on track."
They needed all the confidence -- and luck -- they could muster against Damascus junior pitcher Marci Whitehead, she of the 15 no-hitters, four perfect games, 238 strikeouts and 0.00ERA.
Of course, the last statistic since has changed. She allowedher first earned run in proving mortal after all.
But just barely.
Stacy Reynolds drew a walk to lead off the first inning, and after the next two batters went down swinging, catcher Kelly Tibbs pokeda double to right-center on a 3-2 pitch that scored Reynolds.
Tibbs had two of Northeast's five hits. Stephanie Lazor, Melissa Scarborough and Heather Isaac each singled.
"We wanted to try and rattle her," Tibbs said of Whitehead (18-1). "If we could get some hits early, they wouldn't go through the game thinking they were invincible."
Whitehead came awfully close. She struck out 15, including seven looking, and only walked one. She surrendered just 13 hits all season.
Whitehead also pitched out of trouble in the sixth and seventh innings, when Northeast put two runners on.
The game's biggest jam occurred in the fourth, and Zulka found herself hip-deep in the middle.
The Hornets loaded the bases with one out on consecutive singles, the latter an infield hit to short when the Eagles failed to cover second base on what should have been a force out.
Sophomore AngelaShipe laid down a bunt that senior third baseman Jen Kisiner fieldedand threw home for the second out. Whitehead then struck out on three pitches, and Damascus would only manage one base runner the remainder of the game.
"I just buckled down and concentrated on the batters. I pretended no one was on base," Zulka said.
"I don't think wegave this ballgame away," said Damascus coach Barbara King. "We didn't lose the game. They have a good club and they won it."
Zulka (11-2) finished with a four-hitter. She threw 56 pitches -- compared to123 by Whitehead -- and struck out six.
"Kristy threw really well," Tibbs said. "I can't remember any pitch that wasn't where I wantedit."
Zulka's defense bailed her out of minor trouble in the sixth.
Laura Welsh began the inning with a single, and after a pop-up to first, Theresa Arnett lined a shot to right field that fell in front of Isaac. But Welsh got a late jump and was thrown out at second, with Lazor covering.
The Hornets went down in order in the seventh,with Carla Troiano striking out to end the game.
Pitonzo loses 10players to graduation, while Damascus returns all but two.
"We'llbe back," King said. "This team has a lot of heart and soul."