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Several questions surrounded the Madison girls lacrosse team heading into its Virginia AAA state championship appearance last Saturday. Could it earn its fourth win of the season over Langley, a squad hungry to avenge its loss in last year’s state final? Could it finish the season undefeated against local competition? Could head coach Amanda Counts lead her team to a second state title in three years?

Just as the team had done week after week this spring, the Warhawks left no doubt Saturday night about where the state trophy belongs this season. Even with its lowest goal output of the year, Madison relied on gritty defensive play to emerge with a comfortable 12-7 victory and secure its status as top juggernaut on the area’s high school girls lacrosse landscape.

Though the Warhawks’ five-goal margin prevented any kind of dramatic finish, Langley looked threatening enough to make things interesting early in the second half of Saturday’s game. The Saxons responded to their 8-3 halftime deficit with a pair of quick goals and pulled within 9-6 off a tally from senior midfielder Hayley Soutter near the 20-minute mark.

Just over two minutes later, though, Soutter swung her team’s momentum in the opposite direction when she shoved Madison defender Rachel Brennan to the ground, a foul that prompted the referee to issue a rare red card. Despite playing a man down, Langley managed to keep the Warhawks scoreless for the ensuing 10 minutes but was unable to muster the offense needed to mount a comeback.

Since starting the season 1-2, Langley has defeated every team in its path except Madison. The Warhawks took down their Liberty District rivals in both regular season meetings and routed them 19-10 in the region championship.

Still, Madison’s players were careful not to take Langley lightly the fourth time around.

“We strongly believe that any team can come out on any given day and beat anyone, so we knew we had to come out hard to accomplish what we wanted,” said sophomore midfielder Kierra Sweeney, who recorded a team-high three goals. “We talked before the game about how they’re just another team and pretended we had never played them before. Langley’s a good team, and we were expecting a really good game.”

That ability to avoid complacency was perhaps Madison’s most important attribute during a 20-win season that went unblemished, save for a 15-8 loss against New Jersey power Westfield High in March. Counts never let her foot off the gas all spring, making her team run wind sprints at the start of every practice, including the ones leading up to Saturday’s game. The Warhawks prepared for every opponent the same way, always keeping their focus on the game in front of them rather than the one behind.

“There’s no such thing as overconfidence in this group,” Counts said. “That’s something we really harp on. They’re not allowed to get ahead of themselves, and I think they did a really good job of responding to that instruction.”

Counts can now look forward to a 2014 season that promises to extend her team’s dominance even further. Madison graduates just three seniors this year and can anticipate the return of leading scorers Sweeney and Katie Kerrigan.

The three seniors they will lose, though, leave significant holes to fill on offense next year. Melissa Kellan, Carly Frederick and Erin Callahan poured in plenty of goals this season and will no doubt be missed going forward.

While their high-octane offense tends to draw the most attention, the Warhawks’ reliable defense will be happy to return fully intact next season. Brennan will lead that bunch alongside rising junior goalie Sigourney Heerink, who has started in net since her freshman year.

Until then, though, Madison can finally bask in the glory of what it achieved in 2013.

“We won the state tournament in 2011 when I was a sophomore, and last year we came up a little short,” Callahan said. “It’s awesome to be able to be here again. Our goal every year is to be the only team to end on a win, so it’s awesome to be able to accomplish that goal.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com