Calvert County volleyball powers Northern, Patuxent and Calvert high schools finished the regular season as tri-champions of the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference. Each will hang a banner on its gym walls to honor the achievement, and each can call itself a champion. But only one -- the No. 3 Panthers -- could truly finish the regular season on top.

At 12-1, Patuxent stands superior to No. 8 Calvert (11-2) and No. 9 Northern (10-3) and earned the top seed in the Maryland 3A South Region playoffs that began Friday. And though all three teams were rewarded with a first-round bye, the top seed carries great importance.

Calvert and Northern, as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, respectively, are on pace to meet in the semifinals. Patuxent, as the No. 1 seed, potentially would have to beat only one of its county rivals to win the region and earn a berth in the Maryland 3A semifinals.

"It's certainly an advantage, always has been," said Patuxent Coach Matt Poteet, whose team is making its first appearance as the top seed. "And that's not to say that someone else from the conference, like [fourth-seeded] Thomas Stone, couldn't give us fits in a semifinal match . . . but since we've had three teams in Calvert County, it's been a real benefit to only have to play one of the two."

Patuxent has not played in a regional final. The past four years the Panthers were knocked out in the semifinal round by the eventual region and state champion.

Calvert has been a fixture in the finals but has captured the regional title only twice, in 1987 and 1998. The Cavaliers won their first state championship in 1998.

Northern has won the regional title 12 times since 1986 and all but two years since 1990. The Patriots have won eight state titles since 1990, including consecutive crowns the past three seasons.

"Even our young players who are on varsity for the first time have been there and witnessed the history," Northern Coach Andrea Hoover said. "They can look around the gym and see the SMAC and state banners, and it's a reminder to them of the tradition here. The chance to continue that is exciting, and that's what it's about."

Whatever team emerges from the region will carry with it the expectations of the league.

"I think all the teams in our region feel like they are either going to finish with a loss in the regional semifinals or finals or they are going to be the state champion," Poteet said. "Whoever wins this region will be the favorite to win the state title, and that speaks volumes for the level of volleyball played around here. It's simply amazing."