Five minutes into Saturday's semifinal at the first Maryland Independent Schools boys soccer championship, St. Mary's Ryken's season seemed to hang in the balance. Senior Pat Warring received a red card for dissent, meaning the Knights would have to play the rest of the game against the Key School a man down.

It was "something I definitely didn't want to see," said Patrick Warring, the All-Extra defender's father and the Knights' coach.

But somehow, St. Mary's Ryken found a way to excel from that point on. The Knights won the semifinal, 1-0, when senior forward Dabren Wills scored with less than eight minutes left. And in the afternoon final, the Knights topped Bishop Walsh, 3-1.

"As soon as that happened, we got together and knew we were not going to lose," said Wills, who finished the year with a team-leading 19 goals. "We just had to win that game."

In the final, the Knights (18-1) got goals from Olin Straus, Jeff Brooks and Joseph Parker.

"One of the biggest things I'll remember about this team is how relentless they were and how they always stuck together and worked as a team, not as individual players," the elder Warring said. "For four years, this team has been together, since their days in junior varsity."

"And now we have something to show for all of our hard work," said Brooks, whose direct kick goal from just outside the penalty box gave the Knights a 2-0 lead midway through the first half of the final. "All the time we've been here, we really haven't had anything to show for our efforts. Now we have this. This is what we worked for. This is the only way we could have gone out."

In years past, soccer teams from Maryland's independent schools were done as soon as their last regular season game ended. There were no playoffs, even for a school such as Ryken, which plays its regular season games with public school teams in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.

This year, the independent school tournament created a state championship of sorts for eight private schools' boys and girls teams. Organizers plan to make it an annual event.

"What made this year special is that in previous years, we knew as soon as the regular season ended, all we could do was walk off the field and go home--there was no tournament," the elder Warring said. "But this year we had something to play for after the regular season. And having won the first-ever title of this kind is very special, because it is the first one."

The Knights dominated the two-day tournament, using a tenacious defense and an opportunistic offense to beat Valley Academy, Bishop Walsh and Riverdale Baptist in shortened, round-robin preliminary games Friday.

"Our defense was a big key," said Straus, who gave the Knights a 1-0 lead early in the title game with his fifth goal of the season. "I thought it gave us a lot of chances to score on offense."

Even after winning the championship, Ryken's players couldn't help but think of the one game that prevented them from finishing 19-0--an overtime loss to eventual SMAC champion Thomas Stone.

"We're all still pretty disappointed about losing to Thomas Stone in the third game of the year," Straus said. "We really wanted the [SMAC] regular season title."

But make no mistake--the Knights will settle for a state title instead.

Note: The St. Mary's Ryken girls soccer team advanced to the semifinals of the Maryland Independent Schools championship, also held last weekend at St. Mary's College. The Knights were eliminated by eventual champion St. Maria Goretti, 4-3.

CAPTION: Members of the St. Mary's Ryken boys soccer team hold their 1999 Maryland Independent Schools Championship trophy. In back, from left, are Joseph Parker, Olin Straus and Jeff Brooks--each of whom scored a goal in a 3-1 final victory. In front, from left, are Dabren Wills, who scored the game-winner in the semifinal, Tommy Clagett and Pat Warring.

CAPTION: After an 18-1 season, Ryken players rued their only defeat--to SMAC champion Thomas Stone. Here, Stone's Jimmie Dade, left, and Ryken's Olin Straus fight for the ball during the Cougars' overtime victory.