The students who play for the Ryken Knights, Southern Maryland's only high school ice hockey team, still laugh at themselves when they think about the first day of practice.

At a bitterly cold outdoor rink in College Park, they slowly walked onto the ice and headed straight for the boards. One by one they fell, feet and hands flapping wildly in the air.

Chopticon junior goalie Chris Sanders, who had experience as an in-line skater, recalled clasping tightly to the boards after realizing he didn't know how to stop on ice skates.

"I went to stop and I couldn't," he said. "My skates dug into the ice and I went into the boards. I thought I could pick it up pretty quickly. I thought it would be like anything else. But that's not true. It's not the same."

The Knights aren't the same now as they were back on that cold late fall day. The same group of players who struggled to stay upright on the first day of practice defeated the B team from Landon, 9-0, on Monday at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel.

While some players were shaky skating, the team executed basic formations and looked particularly sharp on the power play, a daunting concept when they started.

"The enthusiasm on this team seems to bridge the gap between ability and desire," Coach Jan de Regt said after the team's first shutout victory. "They really want to do this."

They learn about forechecks, offsides penalties, and the best way to get to northern Prince George's County on Sundays, when the team holds its lone one-hour practice each week through the season's end in February.

The team is made up of 17 students from four counties and seven high schools: St. Mary's Ryken, Leonardtown, Calvert, Westlake, McDonough, Chopticon and Oxon Hill. They compete in the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League, which is made up of nearly 40 schools from the metropolitan area that are divided into teams and placed in conferences based on skill.

De Regt, who has coached club teams in the past, said teaching to the many different skill levels on the team has been the biggest challenge. But the players' enthusiasm for being part of the first prep ice hockey team in Southern Maryland overcomes any practice struggles.

Like Sanders, the majority of the Knights came to the team with a in-line skating background. They have been accustomed to making loopy turns and skating with their heads down, a no-no in ice hockey that can leave a player susceptible to serious injury. It took Leonardtown sophomore Jimmie Blount once to recognize that error. "That doesn't happen twice," he said.

The Knights are 4-3, with two victories by forfeit, and de Regt said the team has been better than anticipated. She was prepared to point out incremental progress over the season, but players have shown dramatic week-to-week improvement.

It hasn't mattered that they come from different, rival high schools, either. "I just play because it's hockey," Westlake junior Chris Marsden said. "It doesn't matter to me that I play for a different team. It would be nice for me if we had a team, but we can't get a hockey team for Westlake."

De Regt, whose son, Adam Buckingham, attends St. Mary's Ryken and is a Knights goalie, said she started the team to make hockey accessible to high school players craving the opportunity.

She knew that players like Elliot Buchholz, a junior at St. Mary's Ryken, would embrace the concept because few other options existed in the area. Buchholz said finding hockey in Southern Maryland is rare, and the opportunity to play on ice as a team has everyone on the team giddy and thankful.

"It's awesome," Buchholz said. "Each time we step on the ice we're creating history. Each time something happens, we're creating tradition. It's like the Lewis and Clark of Southern Maryland.

"We're paving the way. We've got all of the people with us and we're just making it up as we go along."

Craig Marshall, a McDonough student playing for the St. Mary's Ryken Knights, skates past the Landon Bears' Ryan Fitzgerald during Monday's game in Laurel.St. Mary's Ryken Knights Ryan Redden, David Dodds and Peter Krech celebrate a goal in Monday's game. The Knights defeated Landon's B team, 9-0, their fourth victory. Ryken's team is a collection of players from several Southern Maryland schools.Knights goalie Chris Sanders, from Chopticon, waits for his chance to play. At right, Coach Jan de Regt watches her team: "The enthusiasm on this team seems to bridge the gap between ability and desire."