The days of guaranteed state playoff berths for teams from the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference are coming to an end.

New regional alignments, which were approved Dec. 7 by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Board of Control, have split the SMAC teams into two classifications.

Starting next fall and continuing for at least two school years, Great Mills, Patuxent and Thomas Stone will move up to Class 4A because of increased enrollments. They will be paired in the 4A East Region with eight teams from Anne Arundel County.

Lackey, the area's only Class 2A school, also will move up a level and join the 3A South Region with league opponents Calvert, Chopticon, La Plata, Leonardtown, McDonough, Northern and Westlake. Three smaller Anne Arundel schools -- Annapolis, Northeast and Severna Park -- also move to the South Region.

The SMAC no longer will make up the entire region, as it does now with the 3A South, so the SMAC will not have a guaranteed representative in the various state tournaments.

"I like the situation we had the last four years," Northern boys' basketball coach Rick Weber said. "I thought it was great because in some sports where we haven't traditionally been strong it's given us a chance to have teams win the regional title and go to the state playoffs. That possibility keeps your team interested and involved all year long, even if you're struggling early.

"I guess you could still say that, but when you're familiar with the teams and you play them all year long, I think you have more of a chance to be successful. . . . It's the familiarity I liked, having us all together. I understand why it can't be that way anymore, but it was nice while we had it."

The changes ultimately affect every SMAC school, but Great Mills, Patuxent and Thomas Stone will be in for the biggest adjustment.

Still, the announcement came as no surprise to area athletic directors, all of whom said they have heard rumors of the switch for months.

"We've known pretty much all fall, since last year even, that it was coming," said Thomas Stone Athletic Director Kevin Heider, who estimated the Cougars' four-grade student body has grown from about 1,600 five years ago to more 1,900 this year (the MPSSAA enrollment figures, which do not include ninth-grade numbers, have Stone at 1,497). "So it's not a real big surprise."

While Great Mills and Thomas Stone are likely to remain in Class 4A after the two-year alignment, officials at Patuxent expect to have a short stint. Officials estimate that when Huntingtown High School, which will be located between Northern and Calvert at the northern end of the county, opens in 2004, the four county schools will have similar enrollments of about 1,300 students.

"I think it will just basically be for two years only," said Patuxent Athletic Director and boys' track coach Valerie Harrington. "In some sports it's like, 'Whew, it will break us up a little bit.' Sports like volleyball, where now we have a chance of having two state champions from the county, and that would be nice.

"But there's other sports that I'm nervous about. All of the coaches usually compare to see how the kids do in the other leagues around the state, but until you're in it, it's tough to know how you'll stack up."

Charles County is also adding a sixth school -- North Point in Waldorf is scheduled to open in 2005 -- but Heider said that even with the addition, current projections have Thomas Stone increasing its student body by about 200 students each of the next two years.

"I don't see us dropping back down [to Class 3A] any time soon," Heider said. "You might have to take your lumps at first playing against bigger teams, but you learn as you go. And you try, like you always do, to get the best athletes you have out and playing sports.

"It's definitely a new challenge for all of us."