At the end, despite the crushing disappointment, the Spirit players had the presence of mind to turn toward the stands and applaud.
That was Wednesday night in Harrisburg, where the top-seeded Spirit was eliminated by the Heat from the NPSL playoffs, swept in the best-of-three series by the No. 4 team in the American Division.
Yet, the defeated players, in accordance with their season-long custom, looked at the stands and clapped as a tribute to the group of fans who had traveled from Baltimore for the game. And the fans, several hundred strong, were clapping right back.
Maybe it shouldn't have come as such a shock that the Spirit, the NPSL's season-long leader, was treated so impudently by the Heat. There were signs of weakening.
The Spirit had a 27-13 regular-season record, but was 5-5 in its last 10 games. It was 9-11 on the road, but dropped seven of its last eight. Even in retrospect, however, coach Kenny Cooper maintains that didn't concern him.
"During the 5-5 stretch, we were losing badly in three of those games and came back to win," Cooper said. "To me, that was a good sign."
When he tried to analyze how it went sour in the playoffs and the Spirit was held to 12 points in two games after averaging 20-plus during the season, Cooper kept mentioning two names. Michael King. Rusty Troy.
King was a big gun; when he suffered a season-ending knee injury Jan. 19, he was third on the club in scoring with 48 points in 15 games. Kevin Smith, a veteran from Dallas, was brought in to replace King, and played well, although he was not King's equal as a scorer.
Troy, who finished as the team's No. 2 scorer, played in Tuesdaynight's playoff opener, but was ineffective because of a nagging groin injury. It was so sore Wednesday night that he couldn't play.
"Without King and Troy," Cooper said, "we were missing power, size and strength. A healthy King would have helped us these last two months."
King probably would have been of particular help in the playoffs, when the Spirit's scoring dipped.
"Kevin is a playmaker, but King is a goal scorer," Cooper said. "Against Harrisburg especially, we needed to be more physical and powerful. King and [a healthy] Troy would have given us that."
Much as the playoff defeat dismayed him, particularly Tuesday's 16-3 rout at the Baltimore Arena where the Spirit had been almost unbeatable (18-2), Cooper found a lot to like about the season.
Home attendance improved steadily, and the Spirit finished sixth in the 13-team league with 108,887 for 20 dates, a 5,444 average. Although an expansion team, the Spirit seized the American Division lead at the outset and held it until the end.
And there were the kids -- the nine rookies, seven from Baltimore.
"I'm proud of those kids," Cooper said. "They grew up in one short season."
One of them, Mike Conway, started in place of Troy Wednesday night and scored the game's first goal.
"I hate to see the season end," Conway said in the quiet of the locker room. "This has been like a dream come true, playing for the Spirit. But we'll be back next year."
The Spirit's Cris Vaccaro, who recorded 23 of his team's 27 wins, was named the NPSL's Goalkeeper of the Year in voting by coaches and media.
Vaccaro started 36 of the Spirit's 40 regular-season games and was second in the league in points-against average (11.22). The Wichita Wings' Kris Peat was second.
The Spirit's Goran Hunjak was named to the All-NPSL second team and Doug Neely made the third. The league's rookie first team included the Spirit's Jason Dieter, Barry Stitz and Eric Dade.
Other award winners: NPSL scoring champion Hector Marinaro, Cleveland Crunch, Most Valuable Player; Kim Roentved, Wichita, tTC Defender of the Year; goalie Brett Phillips, Harrisburg Heat, Rookie of the Year; Zoran Savic, Kansas City Attack, Coach of the Year.
All-NPSL selections First team: Vaccaro; Marinaro; Roentved; Sean Bowers, Detroit Rockers; Zoran Karic, Cleveland; Rudy Pikuzinski, Buffalo Blizzard.
Second team: Peat; Hunjak; Terry Woodberry, Wichita; George Fernandez, Cleveland; Pato Margetic, Chicago Power; Jon Parry, Kansas City Attack.
Third team: Goalie Jamie Swanner, Buffalo; Neely; Daryl Doran, St. Louis Ambush; Denzil Antonio, Canton Invaders; Franklin McIntosh, Harrisburg; Randy Pikuzinski, Buffalo; Gino DiFlorio, Canton.
All-rookie team: Phillips; Stitz; Dieter; Dade; Denis Hamlett, Harrisburg; Eric Eichman, Wichita; Andy Crawford, Denver Thunder.