Soon after Northern's season came to a close in last season's regional finals, outside hitter Katie Radford began setting goals for this season.

Chief among Radford's goals was to make sure that the 1999 season--the senior's last at Northern--ended on a better note than last year's did. She also wanted to ensure she was able to fill the shoes of departing senior Sarah Haynes as the Patriots' go-to player.

It appears that both goals will be met. The Patriots returned to the state tournament, and the 5-foot-8 Radford proved to be the top hitter at Northern--and likely the best in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.

[Northern was scheduled to play its state semifinal match against Bel Air last night, after the deadline for this edition of Southern Maryland Extra. A victory in that match would put Northern in Saturday's Maryland 3A final, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Catonsville Community College.]

Radford was among five seniors starting for a Northern team that rolled through the SMAC with an undefeated regular season record and did not drop a game in any match. Radford led the top-ranked Patriots in kills during the regular season, averaging 18 kills a match. She proved her worth during Northern's regional tournament run--in which the Patriots drew the conference's second-, third- and fourth-place teams.

Radford's best match of the tournament came in the 3A South Region final against McDonough. She helped Northern rally from a 7-0 first-game deficit and finished the match with 21 kills.

"Without a doubt, [the Patriots] proved they are the best team to represent the region," said McDonough Coach Morris Davis, whose team suffered two of its three losses this season to Northern. "We started off well [in the match] and jumped out 7-0. . . . Then Katie Radford got in the game. It was incredible. The setter [Tera Blevins]-to-Katie combination that worked so well in the season worked great in the match. We were unable to stop her. That is plain English: We were just unable to stop her."

Both McDonough and Calvert changed strategy in their matches against Northern. In the regional semifinals, Calvert moved 6-foot-2 middle hitter Rachel Leitch to the outside, away from Radford, allowing Leitch to avoid Radford's blocks.

McDonough attempted a different strategy, moving 6-2 junior Laurie Ashton to the outside to try to block Radford. The strategy only slowed Radford, who got on track midway through the first game.

"If someone can find a way to stop her, they have a chance of beating Northern," Davis said of Radford. "She's able to move the ball around. She can hit off the [blocker's] hands. And if she needs to dink or roll, she can do that too."

Said Patuxent assistant coach Cheryl Lord, whose team lost to Northern in the first round of the playoffs: "Katie's whole game is very consistent. She's a very smart player and able to place her hits. She doesn't just go up and swing. She places the ball where she wants it to go."

But Lord added that one player does not make a team, and Northern is loaded with talented players who have been on the court together for several years.

"They don't have to rely on one hitter because all their starting players hit," Lord said. "And as far as running an offense, I think they have the best setter in the state in Tera Blevins. . . . They have all the angles covered this year."

With the season almost complete, Radford said she has one final goal before her high school career is complete: winning the state title.

"Hopefully, it ends on a good note," Radford said. "I'm going to be kind of sad that I have no more seasons left to play. I really enjoy playing with our team. And not even just playing, but being part of a team and having the relationships with the other players. We're all like a family."

CAPTION: Northern's Katie Radford, right, spikes a winner against Eleanor Roosevelt. "She places the ball where she wants it to go," said one opposing coach.