SANFORD — Vanessa Hodge has mixed feelings about the Sanford High girls’ soccer team’s new reputation as a contender in Class A South.

“It kind of stinks not having that element of surprise,” said Hodge, a senior forward and Sanford’s top scorer. “But at the same time we finally have our name out there. We’re not looked down upon anymore.”

After a two-year playoff drought, the Spartans not only made it to the 2015 postseason, they earned a bye in the preliminary round under first-year coach Chris Coleman. But their season ended in dramatic fashion with a quarterfinal loss to Marshwood, another team on the rise.

Both teams will enter this season with experience. The Hawks only graduated three seniors; Sanford lost just two.

“We got further than we ever expected,” Marshwood senior midfielder Reagan Nichols said of last year’s team, which finished 14-4 and reached the regional final. “This year we know we’re going to be good.”

The controversial ending of last year’s playoff game between the teams remains fresh for both.

“That was as storybook as you could get,” said Marshwood Coach Chelsea Watson. “You couldn’t write it better.”

With hail falling and the score 2-2 in overtime, a scrum ensued in front of Sanford’s goal. Coleman said his goalkeeper, Kyla Bragg, appeared to claim the ball with two hands. But it popped out – Coleman asserts it came loose when Bragg was fouled – and Natalie Dubois of Marshwood converted it for the winner.

“I still say Marshwood was probably the better team that night and they probably deserved to go through,” said Coleman, a native of Liverpool, England, and a coach with Global Premier Soccer, a development program. “But the way the goal was conceded was harsh on us.”

Coleman said the linesman flagged a foul, which would have negated the goal. But the lead referee overruled the call, and the game – as well as Sanford’s season – was over. Coleman was issued a red card while arguing his case.

“Some things they call, some things they don’t,” Watson said. “Fortunately for us, they didn’t call anything there.”

Watson, a 24-year-old former Marshwood goalie, made her coaching debut for the Hawks last season, leading the fifth-seeded team to just its second regional final. The Hawks beat Kennebunk in the semifinals before losing to Gorham.

Watson returns a talented team, including junior Marin Smith – an all-SMAA selection who scored three goals in the playoff victory over Kennebunk.

“(She is) someone who we’re going to have to look out for,” Coleman said of Smith. “She’s very, very talented. She has a powerful foot and she can strike the ball with both feet.”

Sanford also enters the season with greater expectations – a reversal from the not-too-distant past.

Senior captain Kristen O’Connell, who scored both of Sanford’s goals in the loss to Marshwood, recalled the days when opposing teams looked forward to playing the Spartans.

“We were so bad,” O’Connell said of her freshman and sophomore years. “At the beginning, we never really had much confidence.”

That changed in the second game of the 2015 season, when Sanford tied perennial power Scarborough.

“Some of our fans told us that when Scarborough was leaving, all their faces were shocked,” O’Connell said. “That opened our eyes.”

Sanford finished the regular season as the fourth seed with a 10-2-2 record, including a 3-1 win over Windham, the two-time defending state champion.

“They had never been a team you were scared of,” Smith said of Sanford. “It was really good for us to have that competition.”

Hodge led the Spartans with 22 goals last season. She’s just 11 away from breaking the program record of 50 goals set in 2006 by Kayla Plante.

“We won games we never thought we would have,” Hodge said. “Now it’s like we need to win these games. It’s a lot more pressure.”

The Spartans especially want one victory – at home against Marshwood on Sept. 30.

“We just can’t rely on the refs next time,” Hodge said. “We have to make it happen ourselves.”

2016 TEAMS TO WATCH

1. Gorham: The Class A South champion has a veteran squad. The Rams lost Maine Sunday Telegram All-State defender Cady Houghton but returns eight starters: goalkeeper Emma Smith; defenders Narissa Libby, Noelle DiBiase and Caitlin Callahan; midfielders Jenna Cowan and Emma Forgues; and forwards Hallie Shiers and Meg Perrin.

2. Yarmouth: The Clippers have plenty of returning talent in junior midfielder Sara D’Appolonia and senior forward Katie Clemmer. The team finished last season 7-6-3 and has been on the rise for the past few years. New coach Josh Thornton said the Clippers are looking strong and “tactically tidy.”

3. Camden Hills: The Windjammers notched a 15-1-1 record in their first season in Class A – with their only loss coming to Bangor in the North title game. Eight of Camden Hills’ starters are back, including senior midfielder Charlotte Messer, who led the Windjammers with 20 goals and 18 assists, and senior forward Bryn Anderson (18 goals).

4. Greely: The Rangers rolled to the Class B state title last season, beating Hermon 6-0 in the championship game. They graduated several standouts, including Jocelyn Mitiguy and Izzy Hutnak – the Maine Sunday Telegram Player of the Year – but the team returns plenty of talent in senior Ellie Schad, junior Courtney Sullivan and sophomore Anna DeWolfe.

5. Windham: The top-ranked Eagles suffered an upset loss to No. 9 Kennebunk in the Class A South quarterfinals last season. The team also graduated one of its top scorers in Ciera Berthiaume. But the Eagles appear poised to have another strong year with junior defender Sara Barrett and senior midfielder Maggie Symonds still on the roster.

6. Scarborough: The Red Storm were 13-2-1 last season. They are always among the top SMAA teams, but this season looks a bit uncertain after losing eight starters. Scarborough returns junior forward Gaby Panagakos, who had 11 goals last season. Senior Ashley Perriello also is back after spending most of last season injured.

7. Marshwood: The Hawks made it to the Class A South championship game for just the second time in program history last season, finishing with a 14-4 record. Marshwood graduated just three seniors and is returning its top scorer, junior Marin Smith. Under second-year coach Chelsea Watson, the Hawks return a more experienced and confident squad.

8. Sanford: The Spartans suffered a tough overtime loss to Marshwood in the Class A South quarterfinals. But for a team that hadn’t made it to the playoffs in two years, finishing the regular season as the No. 4 seed with a 10-2-2 record was a success. Sanford only graduated two seniors and returns forward Vanessa Hodge (22 goals).

9. Falmouth: The Yachtsmen, 8-5-2 last season, are likely to benefit from the addition of junior midfielder Lauren Wendland – a transfer from Massachusetts who has verbally committed to Division I Wagner. Falmouth lost four starters but retained top scorers Lucy Mahoney and Amelia Waite.

10. South Portland: After a two-year rebuilding process, South Portland’s roster boasts a group of juniors who have played together on varsity since their freshman year. The Red Riots return the speedy duo of midfielder Juliana Selser and forward Callie O’Brien. The team finished 5-8-1 last season and failed to make the playoffs, but Coach Jeff Selser is expecting a breakout year.