During his first two years on the Thomas Stone golf team, Shawn Krahling often felt there was too much pressure on him to carry his team.

"It was like I had to go and shoot real well in every tournament to have a chance of winning," he said.

Not anymore. Krahling, now a junior, is still the Cougars' No. 1 player, but thanks to some talented new players, Thomas Stone's fortunes have taken a drastic turnaround. The Cougars were undefeated until Tuesday's loss to Patuxent, 164-165, and at 7-1 are challenging defending champion St. Mary's Ryken for the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference regular season title.

Already this season, the Cougars have defeated Leonardtown, which finished 10th last year at the Maryland 4A/3A tournament, and Northern, one of the SMAC's stronger teams.

Next week should tell the Cougars exactly how far they've come. They're scheduled to play in the Calvert County tournament Monday at Hawthorne Country Club, then in the SMAC tournament Tuesday at Wicomico; on Wednesday, they host St. Mary's Ryken at White Plains.

"At the beginning of the year, I knew we were capable of being one of the top three or four teams" in the SMAC, first-year coach Donnie Mayer said. "I didn't know if we had enough firepower to be up there with Ryken. Looking at it now, I think they're deeper than us, but if our top four or five guys have good days, we can beat them."

Behind Krahling, the Cougars have junior Sean Bannon, who joined the team this fall and shot a team-low 39 in a 163-166 win over Leonardtown on Sept. 21. In that same match, junior Ryan Curry also scored a 39.

The Cougars have two players competing for the No. 6 spot -- senior Matt Tetrault and junior Michael Bateman -- both of whom started playing golf over the summer.

The new players have made things easier on Krahling, he said.

"It makes you feel not as nervous," Krahling said. "Even if you play bad, you know there's someone else that'll back you up."

Youngsters Fuel La Plata Start

La Plata also has had a surprising start, winning its first six matches before falling to Leonardtown on Monday, 169-176.

The Warriors still have their toughest matches ahead of them, however, including a tri-match with St. Mary's Ryken and Thomas Stone, and a match with Patuxent. Coach Frazier Coleman is pleasantly surprised at his team's performance thus far.

"I didn't expect to be 6-0 this late in the season," he said. "My freshmen have helped me considerably."

Those freshmen are Kyle Murray and Tim Deavers, who along with sophomore Kevin Pope have played at least one match at the No. 1 spot. The Warriors' No. 1 player in a match is always the player who had the lowest score in the previous match.

But in the Leonardtown match, the Warriors' youth showed, as Pope and Deavers shot 43s -- which were uncharacteristic, Coleman said. Murray shot a 48, two days after shooting a 36 during a practice round at the same course, Breton Bay.

"They're very, very young," Coleman said. "They're inexperienced. I'm sure their knees were knocking."

Ryken's Welch Shoots a 33

St. Mary's Ryken junior Roger Welch appears to have had the lowest round of the season so far in the SMAC. He shot a 3-under-par 33 at Breton Bay last week in his team's 20-stroke win over Leonardtown. For the season, Welch is averaging 38.2 strokes per match.

Teammate Richie Bamber played the last two matches with a stiff back after being hit from behind in a car accident. He shot 41 and 42, but Welch and teammates John Green, Howie Grube-O'Brien and Jaime Masciantonio have helped to pick up the slack. Bamber is still averaging 39.1 strokes per match, second-best on the team.