Northern of Calvert entered last night's Class 3A state final with the reputation of a team able to make opponents pay for even the slightest mistakes.
On a night when opposing River Hill gave the Patriots their toughest match of the year, the Hawks also demonstrated one flaw that ultimately spelled the difference.
They failed to put Northern away.
River Hill was one point away from winning each of the first two games, and led the third, 12-10, before falling, 17-15, 17-15, 15-12 at CCBC-Catonsville.
After playing Northern twice this season, including once in a tournament, and losing all five games, the Hawks (18-3) saved their best for last, though even that wasn't enough.
"We knew they were going to give us a very tough match," said River Hill coach Sybil Modispacher. "I'm so proud of these ladies. Nobody has come anywhere near that against Northern, and that's a tribute to Northern."
Said Northern's Katie Radford (20 kills): "When we played before it was tough, but when you play a team a second or third time, it's so much harder because you know each other better."
The victory gave Northern (19-0) its fifth state title in six years and sixth this decade.
River Hill, led by senior Shannon Patrick (25 kills), played well early, nearly stealing the first game from the Calvert County power, which hadn't dropped a single game all season.
Paced by the hitting of Patrick, Lisa Humphrey (seven kills) and Keiki Miller (six), the Hawks took a quick 6-4 lead in game one before the big-hitting Patriots came to life, scoring six of the next seven to take a 10-7 lead.
Following a block by Miller and kill by Humphrey, however, the Hawks had tied the match at 10. The teams would go on to tie four more times before River Hill, leading 15-14, missed its chance to win with a hitting error.
Northern then finished off the game on another River Hill error and kill by Cory Karcesky.
The loss seemed to take something out of the Hawks, who started the second game with several hitting errors and quickly found themselves down, 7-0.
The Columbia team, however, stormed back in resounding fashion, scoring 14 of the next 18 points to lead, 14-11.
But again with game point on the line, the Hawks couldn't finish the job, as Northern tied it on consecutive kills by Katie Radford and Darcey Krug before winning on back-to-back aces by Devin Karcesky.
Finally, trailing, 12-10, in the third and deciding game, the Patriots rallied for the final five points, winning on Cory Karcesky's ace.
"They don't ever let up," said Modispacher of her team. "They keep coming back and coming back. They don't accept defeat."