After his girls' 200-yard freestyle relay team made the finals of the Virginia AA swimming championships last year, Loudoun County Coach Brad Binford decided to approach this season with a different philosophy.

Instead of focusing on individual events, Binford put an emphasis on the relay teams.

"Once the girls fell into place last year, it kind of got me thinking about the relays," he said. "We've always been a smaller team in the district. Any team can go in with a bunch of top individuals and then add up the points and say they have the best team. But when you put an emphasis on relays and ask the kids to make a sacrifice, they seem to understand they're not swimming for themselves but for the other boys and girls on their team."

Binford has devoted much of the Raiders' practice time this winter to working on the key elements of relays -- starts, turns and exchanges. In meets, he tinkered with relay lineups in order to find the best combination of swimmers.

It seems to have paid off, and the Raiders head to this weekend's Virginia AA championships in Norfolk with several strong relay teams.

Juniors Lauren Dyer, Justine O'Neil and Jessie Ponce De Leon combine with sophomore Kelsey Willingham in the 200-yard freestyle relay, an event in which Loudoun County was eighth in the state a year ago. Sophomores Andrew Brian and Chris Giangi team with senior Nathan Tobler and junior Danny York in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

At the Dulles District meet, the girls' foursome won the 200 freestyle relay in 1 minute 50.94 seconds. Although the fastest swimmers usually take the anchor legs of relays, the Loudoun County girls' 200 freestyle starts with its fastest swimmers -- Willingham and Dyer.

"It's a bit different order," Binford said. "We try to build such a lead that it gives us a psychological advantage."

Binford uses a more traditional order with boys' relay teams, which have yet to swim their best races. His fastest swimmer, Giangi, goes fourth.

"Nathan has such a great start, and Chris is a great finisher," Binford said. "He's not intimidated when someone has a lead on him. . . . Physically, they can beat anybody, but mentally they have to be there."

In addition to the Loudoun County relay teams, several local competitors should contend for state titles this weekend.

Loudoun Valley sophomore Emily Kelly won the 200 individual medley and 200 freestyle at the Dulles District meet but will swim the 100 and 200 freestyles at the state meet.

"She just felt really strong about her freestyle, even though IM was tempting," said her mother and coach, Donna Kelly. "We think she can win the 200 free. The time she swam in districts [1:54.78] is close to last year's winning time."

Stone Bridge sophomore Megan Newell and Broad Run sophomore Danielle Mortensen finished second and third, respectively, in the 200 freestyle at districts and should push Emily Kelly again in that event.

Newell is likely to be involved in another of the meet's top races, the 100 butterfly. Last year, Potomac Falls junior standout Becky Horning edged Newell by less than a second in the event at the state meet.

Loudoun Valley's Tom Maddux should challenge for the 100 breaststroke title.

"He has gone under a minute" in the event, "and I think with a time as fast as that he should have a good chance of winning," Donna Kelly said. "Last year, there was one swimmer under a minute, and he won."