It's the kind of schedule that would make most coaches nervous. Instead, it makes Northern volleyball coach Beth Incrocci very, very happy.

No. 2 Northern opened its season with matches against sixth-ranked River Hill, followed by a date with No. 1 Centennial, the defending Maryland 4A champions. The Patriots swept both opponents, beating River Hill, 15-6, 15-7, 15-9, and stunning Centennial, 15-11, 15-6, 15-8.

The challenges have not ended for Northern. The Patriots will host last year's state 4A runner-up, Severna Park, at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"Talk about a tough" start, said Incrocci, whose team also faces tough competition in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference. "But this is the way I like to play. I just try to make the most of the season, and that means playing the best to be the best."

Incrocci should know. She guided the Patriots to four state championships from 1994 to 1997. Rival Calvert--which won its first-ever state title last fall--lies ahead in the SMAC schedule, on Oct. 7.

"We set our goals this season to play for a win every match and to play for a win every game," Incrocci said. "The problem with our team is that sometimes we go through mental lapses where we drop games we shouldn't drop or let teams back in after we've built a big lead. I know not losing a game is an ambitious goal because we have such an intense schedule, but we want to play with that attitude."

Northern will be helped by the leadership of five seniors--Tera Blevins, Jessica Coleman, Devin Karcesky, Katie Radford and Tiffany Sands. All five were on the varsity roster as sophomores, when the Patriots last won a state championship.

"It's still so early in the season that it's hard to predict how it will all end, but so far we're looking good," said Blevins, the team's starting setter who registered 41 assists against Centennial. "What this team needs to do is click more as a unit. Everybody on the court has large individual roles, but we also have to work together. I think that's the advantage to having five seniors this year: We can work together to bring the intensity level on the floor up."

Ryken's Biggest Game Comes Early

Since St. Mary's Ryken is a private school, its teams are not eligible for the regional and state playoffs at the end of the fall. For the Knights' boys soccer team, that means its annual regular season matchup with Thomas Stone usually is the highlight of the year.

This season's big game is slated for 4 p.m. Tuesday at Ryken. Thomas Stone, last year's state 3A co-champion, is ranked fourth in The Washington Post's top 10.

"Stone still is, and probably will always be, the big game of the season," said Ryken Coach Pat Warring, whose team defeated No. 3 Chesapeake, 2-1, last week in the La Plata tournament. "Unfortunately, we have it first. We'd prefer it was at the end of the season, when both teams have more experience."

Last season, Ryken beat Thomas Stone, 2-1, in overtime. Both teams return the majority of their starters and know each other well. Two players from each team--Jeff Brooks and Pat Warring (the coach's son) from Ryken (2-0) and Shawn Moses and A.W. Smith from Thomas Stone--spent a month playing together this past summer for an under-17 team in Brazil.

Ryken's key players are seven seniors--Brooks, Warring, Tommy Clagett, Joe Parker, Daniel Sidorowicz, Olin Straus and Dabren Wills--all of whom start and helped upset Chesapeake last week.

"Stone is as good as, if not a little bit better than, Chesapeake in some positions," the elder Warring said. "I know they'll be ready for this game. So will we."

At the end of the season, for the first time, Ryken will sponsor a postseason tournament for private schools at St. Mary's College. About eight boys teams and eight girls teams are expected to attend, with hopes of expansion in the future.

In Hockey, Ties That Bind It's not exactly "All In the Family," but it is close. Three of the four head field hockey coaches in Calvert County (Patuxent has co-coaches this season) played for county teams when they were in high school. The three played for two of Calvert County's three current athletic directors.

Though the family tree is hard to chart, there are many branches:

Northern Coach Jennifer Shoup was the SMAC's most outstanding player in 1988 at Calvert. She played attack for then-coach Mary Finley, now the athletic director at Northern.

Calvert Coach Nicole Wilson played for Northern under then-coach Kim Roof, the current athletic director and softball coach at Patuxent. She was a member of the Patriots' 1990 team that lost to Calvert in penalty strokes in the regional championship.

Patuxent co-coach Jen Prowinski also played for Finley at Calvert. She was the team's starting goalie in 1990 when they beat rival Northern in the regional final and went on to win the state title.

Wilson was the junior varsity coach at Northern in 1996, and subsequently was an assistant to Finley, who was the Patriots' head coach from 1993 to 1998. Shoup also served as an assistant to Finley before taking over the program this season.

"I think it's remarkable that all of these girls came back to help the county, the league that first gave them an opportunity," Finley said. "Now they are leading the way for the new generation of girls in the county. It's a matter of giving back. All of these women are exceptional people, exceptional coaches."