With Patuxent playing a Southern Maryland Athletic Conference varsity football schedule for the first time, the number of varsity programs in the league grew to 11 and league coaches had the perfect opportunity to implement a round-robin format for the 10-game schedule--with each SMAC team playing one another once.

The coaches, however, opted to use an eight-game conference schedule that leaves teams with two open dates to schedule nonconference opponents.

"The coaches voted to play two nonconference games because we thought we'd have a better chance of getting more than one team into the playoffs that way," said Dominic Zaccarelli, Westlake's athletic director and head football coach. "The schedules will stick for two years, then we'll rotate."

For the next two seasons, for example, Westlake will not face Great Mills or Leonardtown. Calvert will not face Chopticon or Thomas Stone.

"The only stipulation we have is that teams in the same county will always play each other," Zaccarelli said. "That will never change--there's too many county rivalries."

The advantage of scheduling nonconference opponents is the opportunity to pick up playoff points by defeating a quality team from another league, perhaps even a larger, Class 4A opponent. Still, not all SMAC teams ended up going outside the conference for their nonleague games. In fact, half of the league's teams will play each other on opening night in what qualifies as a nonconference game, including Thomas Stone at Chopticon, Leonardtown at La Plata and Patuxent at McDonough.

"I like having the two games to go out and pick up other opponents who will help you get state playoff points," said Patuxent Coach Jim Esposito, whose second nonconference opponent will be Southern High of Anne Arundel County. "But for us this year, playing McDonough as a nonconference game was just a matter of short notice. They had the first game open, and so did we. They were one of the only games we could get, so we agreed to a two-year deal."

The only drawback to not playing round-robin is the possibility of a tie for first place at season's end. For example, because Westlake and Leonardtown do not face each other this season, it is possible that both teams could finish atop the conference at 10-0 or 9-1. There will not be a playoff game in the event of a tie. Rather, the first tiebreaker would be head-to-head results, and the second would be the state playoff point system.

"I don't think any of the coaches fear ending with the exact same number of points," Esposito said. "It's just not likely."

A Five-Peat for Westlake?

Members of Westlake's coaching staff are wearing shirts that say "Drive for 5" on the back. For newcomers, that translates into a push for the team's fifth consecutive SMAC championship.

Westlake, which like Patuxent played a junior varsity schedule after the school opened and then played an independent varsity schedule for two years, joined the SMAC in 1995 and has since swept four straight football championships. The Wolverines, with a number of talented returners that include running backs Recardo Evans and Gonzie Gray, are clearly the favorites to repeat this season.

"Of course, we don't know a whole lot about the SMAC because we haven't played in it yet, but we know enough to know that Westlake is going to be the favorite until someone knocks them off," Esposito said. "And we all know that hasn't happened yet."

Westlake often stumps opponents with its wing-T offense, and it will be back at it again this season. Seventy of the Wolverines' players attended a football camp Aug. 7-9 at Salisbury State called "Wings and Things." The camp, attended by about six teams and run by the Salisbury coaching staff, teaches players the art of running the wing-T.

"I know it's only been two days of practice, but I think we're looking really good," said Gray, who will play in the secondary and at running back this season. "We've always had depth, but this year it seems we have more experience to go with the depth. We're looking for an exciting year--and a trip back to the state playoffs."

FOOTBALL KICKOFF

1999 OPENING-DAY GAMES

Calvert vs. Blake Sept. 3, 7:00

Chopticon vs. Thomas Stone Sept. 3, 7:30

Great Mills vs. Southern Sept. 3, 7:30

La Plata vs. Leonardtown Sept. 3, 7:30

Lackey at Gwynn Park Sept. 4, 1:30

McDonough vs. Patuxent Sept. 3, 7:00

Northern vs. Arundel Sept. 3, 7:30

Westlake vs. Crossland Sept. 3, 7:30

* All are non-conference games; all times are p.m.

CAPTION: La Plata High football coach Joe Williams watches as two of his players engage in a tackling drill during the second day of practice.

CAPTION: Patuxent High's Pat Martin, foreground, and Judd Vail run a pass play during practice as the Panthers get ready for their first season in SMAC football.