DENVER - For the last 33 seconds of Wednesday's state championship girls' lacrosse contest, Natalie Berg found herself in an unfamiliar position.
Injured after her left knee gave out on her during a sprint down the left sideline, Air Academy's leading scorer watched in confidence - and pain - as her teammates played keep-away to preserve an 11-10 victory over Cherry Creek at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium at the University of Denver.
Then when the team went on to celebrate with its students and fans, she looked across the field while sitting in a cart, her knee iced and emotions swirling.
"I'm really happy my team won," Berg said. "It's hard to see them over there. I know they're celebrating with me in their hearts. We're like a family."
Earlier, Berg started a six-goal run with consecutive goals and later set up her twin sister, Jessica, for another as Air Academy (17-2) built an 11-7 lead with 10:02 left in the game.
"Natalie played a huge part of getting us here and a huge part in this game," Kadets senior Emily Trousil said. "We missed her for the last 33 seconds, but she played a major part in this."
The Kadets then weathered a Cherry Creek (12-7) comeback attempt, led by senior Livvy List, who scored twice to cut the deficit in half with 4:56 still left to play. Caroline Perry added another with 4:25 remaining to make it a one-goal game.
Air Academy goalkeeper Jaycee Davis registered seven saves, including two key stops late, and Perry missed the net by inches in the final minute as the Kadets hung on.
"All the little things add up," said Bruins senior Colby Goettelman, who had two goals and set up Perry for her near-miss. "Last year, it added up for us (a 13-9 win over Air Academy in the state semifinals), and this time, it added up for them. We've played Air Academy all four years, and they bring it every time. We fight so hard and it's anyone's game."
MacEllen McDonough led a balanced scoring attack with three goals, opening and closing the first half with tallies. Her second goal tied the game at 5 with 3:15 left as Air Academy climbed out of an early two-goal deficit.
Thanks to a pair of late first-half penalties, Cherry Creek opened the second half down two attackers. Then Goettelman and List scored 12 seconds apart, quickly seizing momentum back for Cherry Creek.
Then Air Academy got it back, scoring six straight.
"This is such a game of momentum," Trousil said. "They got the momentum back, but we had to keep our spirits up and find a way to get it back, and we did."
The victory gave the Kadets (17-2) their second state title and third in the program's history. In 2009 and 2012, Air Academy beat Cherry Creek in the title game. Then in 2011 and in last year's semifinals, the Bruins had the upper hand.