CATONSVILLE — Before the Class 2A state semifinal at Catonsville Community College, players on the Liberty soccer team went through their ritual of shouting out the number of games left before they could lay claim to their first state title.
Before Friday's game, that number was two. After 80 minutes of physical, end-to-end action, it was 20.
A 2-0 loss to Rockville of Montgomery County put a halt to the Lions' best soccer season in school history. While they were the aggressors much of the game, the Lions failed to convert on several prime scoring opportunities.
For Coach Lee Kestler, the loss was a double-edged sword.
"We came here to win. There's no doubt about that," said Kestler, whose third-seeded team finished 11-3-1. "But just getting this far means something. I hope our play today showed people that Carroll County really can play soccer."
The Lions proved that bystaying with the speedier Rams (11-2-2) for most of the game. Liberty was outshot only 9-8.
Time and again, though, especially in the first half, Liberty had the ball stolen near midfield, where Rockville took control and penetrated into the Lions' end.
"In the first half, we tried to play their style of soccer," said Kestler. "I told my players at halftime to stop trying to dribble with (the Rams) and just play their game."
The strategy seemed to work, but not before Rockville had taken a 1-0 lead with 32:26 left in the first half.
From 20 yards out on the left side, Rams midfielder Tim Barone fired a direct kick that deflected off a defender and sneaked into the sideof the net.
"I kicked it, and it just got around their defender,"Barone said. "We knew it would be a close game, but that goal reallypsyched us up and got us going."
Liberty had several good scoringchances in the half, including two by midfielder Aron Bassoff in thegame's first 15 minutes.
Just 3:39 into the game, Bassoff took a shot from in front that missed wide right by a few feet. Ten minutes later, his floating shot from 25 yards out sailed wide left.
"The kid can score goals from anywhere inside the 30," said Kestler. "It was kind of frustrating. I think all the guys were a little nervous, but we just tried to get them to relax, go out and play soccer and have fun."
The Lions again threatened with 21:28 left in the half, but a shot from in front by midfielder Blake Beares was headed away by a Rockville defender.
The second half was as wide open as the first.
With 5:26 gone, a high, angling corner kick by Liberty forward Ryan Dunham hit the center of the crossbar and bounced away harmlessly.
Then, with 15:01 left, Bassoff's shot from in front off a corner kick was met with a leaping save by Rams goalie C. J. Norton.
The Rams' second goal came with just 1:40 left, and slammed the door ona Lions win.
Forward Leo Landy's shot floored goalie Bill Reigel and ricocheted to the waiting foot of back Andy Stroud, who tapped a grounder into the empty net.
Said Kestler: "It was nice to get this far. Our goal from the start was to win it all, but this season will be something to remember."