Middletown - Never did they imagine they'd be celebrating the first state championship in the program's 37-year history when the season began.
Not when Waterford had to replace eight players, rely heavily on underclassmen and then fight through their share of adversity during the regular season.
Yet the jubilant Lancers stood on the Middletown High School turf celebrating a Class M state girls' soccer title on Saturday after beating Haddam-Killingworth, 1-0, in an intensely competitive and physical game.
"We lost eight seniors and nobody thought we were even going to be decent at all," sophomore Claire Hurley said. "To come out and make it to the state finals and then to win, that was definitely super unexpected and I don't think anybody thought we could do that."
The third-seeded Lancers added to their degree of difficulty by playing without senior standout Melina Spanos and Hurley, two starters dealing with injuries, for long stretches. They won despite spending nearly the entire second half in their own end fending off a persistent attack and being outshot 16-5 overall.
"They came ready to win a championship," Waterford coach Rob Brule said of Haddam-Killingworth. "For us, we needed to play the best game of our life defensively. They have weapons up front and weapons in the midfield. We just really needed to play organized and we had to play smart, and I think we did that today.
"… (H-K) had some great opportunities and the soccer gods were on our side."
Spanos, who injured her jaw in a 2-1 win over Tolland in Tuesday's semifinal, played sparingly and sat out all but a few minutes of the second half. Hurley injured her right thigh late in the first half and played only briefly in the second half but not before scoring the game-winning goal on a beautiful blast from about 25 yards out.
The play started harmlessly enough as Hurley collected the ball in the midfield. She quickly turned and sent a rocket over the head of goalie Tevi Ferguson. She had previously missed two other opportunities from long range, including banging one off the crossbar.
"Oh my goodness, what just happened?" Hurley said of her reaction at the time. "It was awesome."
The goal came with two minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the first half.
Hurley has thrived in the championship game spotlight before, earning most valuable players honors last spring when Waterford captured the Class M state softball championship.
"That's what Claire has done in her short career," Brule said. "She's a great player. Great players have great moments on the greatest stage."
The resilient Lancers spent the second half under siege, as the fifth-seeded Cougars pressed for the tying goal. Haddam-Killingworth's Jennifer Martin was a dangerous scoring threat almost every time she touched the ball. Martin beat a charging goalie Jordan Kovacs to a ball but slid it past the outside of the left post midway though the second half.
The Cougars (13-5-2) fired off 10 shots in the second half but most attempts either went wide or high over the goal.
Kovacs (five saves), a freshman, came up big with just over nine minutes remaining, diving to smother Molly Madore's close range shot. Under heavy and constant pressure, junior Sally Scarpa, junior Summer Wyatt, senior Genaya Loftis and senior Hannah Swanson played tough defense and refused to give in.
"We had everything to give and nothing to lose," said Scarpa, who cried tears of joy after the game. "We had to grind it out and win it, because we weren't leaving without winning."
Waterford (17-3-2) somehow survived the tense final minutes.
"I knew Middlesex Hospital is close by so if I had the heart attack I'd be there pretty quick," Brule said. "I've been through this all year. The three losses that we had have been by one goal and we've been up, so I was a bit nervous because they're a talented team."
Only the second coach in the team's history, Brule has poured his heart into the program during his 20 years in charge.
He talked fondly about his journey and all his players. He credited the Waterford Soccer Club for helping develop players.
"We had to build it from the ground up and we did that the right way," Brule said.