SUWANEE -- As Saturday evening was turning into Sunday morning, Danielle Au was quite the sight.
The front of her white North Gwinnett uniform had turned completely brown, making her the muddiest Bulldog from a rain-soaked Class AAAAA girls soccer title game. She also might have been the happiest, sporting a wide grin following a 3-0 state championship victory over Northview.
Moments earlier, Au was the center of the celebration as her teammates flocked directly to her as the final seconds ticked off. Every player knew that this was the final high school game for the South Carolina-bound striker, North's only senior.
"This is awesome," said Au, who scored two goals and assisted the other in the final. "It's my senior year so I knew I wanted to finish on top. It feels amazing."
While Au was the unquestioned headliner of the AAAAA champions, it was the way her supporting cast delivered that carried North from a considerable unknown in the preseason to the best team in the state's largest classification. Even head coach Mark Karen worried that his team may have to battle just to reach the state playoffs, given how many graduation and injury losses his team suffered before a game had kicked off.
Those youngsters quickly answered their coach's concerns, playing well in the early season without Au, who was recovering from shoulder surgery. It only got better with her return as the team won the Region 7-AAAAA and state titles.
"It's almost been a fantasy season," Karen said. "I was almost made a believer that this team would just be lucky to get into the playoffs. But this team believed. It's not a team with a lot of stars. It's a blue-collar team with a great work ethic. I've never had a team work so hard. The girls just have that never quit attitude."
That desire served the Bulldogs well in the state playoffs, where they won their first four games by a single goal. Two of those wins came by penalty kicks, including 11 rounds with Grayson. North (19-3) also trailed No. 1 Walton 3-1 in the semifinals near the midway point of the second half before rallying to force overtime and then PKs.
No PKs were necessary in the championship game. The hosts won handily over 7-AAAAA rival Northview.
"It's really cool," said North's Lauren Harriman, who scored a goal in both the semifinals and finals. "We made history by winning state."
The championship was the sixth in North's long history, joining softball (1985, 1988, 1989), cheerleading (2000) and girls cross country (2009) title teams. The cross country crown gives the Bulldogs two state titles this school year and Karen is the head coach of both teams, in addition to being the school's athletic director.
"Yeah, I'm retiring," Karen joked of his success. "I told my principal, Mr. (Ed) Shaddix, I'm retiring after this."
Karen's team had a record-breaking year in many ways, most notably with its title. A young defense -- goalkeeper Lauren Duncan and defenders Mackenzie Loula, Jessica Eberhardt, Kristin Tamburo and Abigail Groth -- broke the school record for shutouts in a season as it allowed just 20 goals in 22 matches.
Au became the school's all-time leading scorer, but finished her career just short of another milestone. She finished with 99 career goals, not that it mattered to her too much. She had a team title trophy that was plenty satisfying.
"Yeah, I finished at 99," Au said. "But I wear No. 9, so maybe it was meant to be."