Less than 48 hours after Thomas Stone senior Marcus Whalen said that advancing to the Maryland 3A football playoffs would have meant nothing to him and his teammates had they not beaten their biggest nemesis, Westlake, he had a sudden change of heart.

The Cougars' playoff opener, which they will host tomorrow night, carries plenty of meaning now. That's because 19th-ranked Westlake--the team No. 12 Thomas Stone beat, 20-14, last Friday to claim the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference title--is the opponent once again.

"This game is even bigger now," said Whalen, who rushed for 160 yards and the game-winning touchdown on 31 carries against Westlake. "I guess now we have to show everybody that it wasn't a fluke that Thomas Stone beat Westlake. We have to prove we can beat them twice in one year."

Thomas Stone, the 3A South champions and the third seed in the playoffs, will host sixth seed Westlake at 7 p.m. After last week's loss, the Wolverines knew they would need help to make the playoffs, and the help came when three teams near them in the Class 3A points standings--Randallstown, Fallston and Dundalk--all lost.

"Everyone was really happy that we got in, but especially when we heard we were going to play Stone again, because everyone knew we could have won that game the other night," said Westlake senior Gonzie Gray, the highly recruited running back and defensive back who sprained his right ankle in the loss and is questionable for Friday's game. "Now we just have to go out and prove we're the better team."

With both teams evenly matched, the first game was decided by field position and turnovers. Thomas Stone, which scored once on an 85-yard kickoff return by sophomore Mark Johnson, started three of its drives in Westlake territory; the Wolverines started no better than from their own 27 the whole game. Westlake also lost three costly turnovers--two fumbles and an interception.

"We have to eliminate the mistakes," Gray said. "We can do that. And I think they are being a little complacent with the SMAC championship. I'm not saying they don't want to win states, but they seem happy with the SMAC title, like that was their goal, and we're still working toward ours."

Both teams could add some wrinkles to their game plans. Watch for Thomas Stone to run the option, even though it didn't on Friday. And Westlake, which typically exploits the sweep around end, could grind the ball down the middle of the field behind senior Denis Hicks--something the Wolverines had success with Friday.

"I'm sure it can't be easy to beat anyone twice, but I've never played anybody back-to-back like this before," Whalen said. "It's not that it bothers us, though. I guess this is Round 2, and we're glad it's at home."

CAPTION: Mark Johnson, right, shown returning an interception against La Plata, scored a key touchdown on a kickoff return against Westlake last week. The Cougars host Friday's playoff rematch.

CAPTION: Westlake running back Denis Hicks looks for some room as he is chased by La Plata tacklers in a game last month. Hicks was successful running up the middle against Thomas Stone during the Wolverines' 20-14 loss last week and could see significant action again.