Its history includes five berths in the state championship game and three titles, but the girls' lacrosse team at Air Academy is embracing quite a different role this time around as the Kadets chase a fourth.
"It feels kind of cool," Air Academy senior Natalie Sannes said. "When other teams underestimate you, it gives you the advantage. It feels good to have that unexpected win, and I think we made a statement by beating the third-ranked team. I think they thought they had it in the bag before the game ever started."
The No. 14 Kadets (12-4), fresh off a 14-9 upset win at No. 3 Kent Denver in the second round of the playoffs Saturday, meet No. 6 and 10-time state champion Cherry Creek (13-3) later this week at the Stutler Bowl in Greenwood Village, fully aware of what's at stake.
"Cherry Creek has made it to every state championship game," said Sannes, a freshman on the 2014 Kadets squad that beat the Bruins for the program's last state title. "We want to be the team that stops them for once. We have a lot of passion and momentum going into this game. They knocked us out last year. We want to knock them out this year."
Girls' lacrosse has been a sanctioned sport by the Colorado High School Activities Association since 1998.
When Air Academy last hoisted the state trophy at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium at the University of Denver, the program had more than established itself as gold-standard level, winning previous championships in 2012 and 2009 and routinely making deep playoff runs during the past decade.
But since longtime coach Sean Harmon stepped away, the Kadets haven't been able to maintain that level of success. The 2015 and 2016 seasons each came to ends before the quarterfinals, and both were led by different coaches.
That upheaval continued into this season, when Kali Maxwell became the Kadets' fourth coach in as many seasons.
The 2011 Cheyenne Mountain graduate knew she had an uphill journey ahead of her.
"I think the turnover has been super tough on the girls because they haven't been able to trust in any of their coaches," said Maxwell, who served as Air Academy's assistant coach last year after a collegiate career at Long Island University Post (then known as C.W. Post) that included Division II women's lacrosse national championships in 2012 and 2013. "Being with them last year was great. I wasn't expecting to be head coach so soon, but I have a ton of support, and that's made the transition much easier."
The comeback win at Kent Denver put Air Academy in its first quarterfinal game since 2014, but the overachieving Kadets aren't ready to stop and smell the roses quite yet.
"I told the girls after the win to not be satisfied with this," Maxwell said. "We still can do better things, and I reminded them that one win doesn't make the entire season. We have more games to look forward to, and we need to stay focused on what our final goal is first."