For the past two years, La Plata has handled the target on its back very well. Behind Joe Gross Jr. and Brent Martin, the Warriors have held off the rest of the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference to win consecutive conference titles.

But even as Gross, a three-time All-Met, and Martin, last year's SMAC champion, seem ready to peak as seniors, the rest of the conference has improved to the point where even La Plata realizes it may be vulnerable.

"I really think somebody could come up and snag us this year," La Plata Coach Mike Meiser said. "These kids are coming to us already with a lot of experience."

Eight SMAC players qualified as individuals for the Maryland 4A/3A tournament last year, and with the opening of Huntingtown High, the conference will get two automatic berths in the team tournament.

"This has got to be one of the hardest conferences in Maryland," Thomas Stone Coach Evan Sine said. "I know Montgomery [County] usually has the champion, but I mean here, it's so deep.

"Everywhere we look, there's no cakewalk. Three years ago, you just had La Plata and McDonough and there was everybody else. Now, everybody has a chance."

Sine has "a boatload of seniors" -- seven, to be exact -- who he hopes can help Thomas Stone find some consistency. Last season, the Cougars finished eighth at the District IV tournament, only to place third at the SMAC tournament a week later. Senior Matt Beasley will be Thomas Stone's top player.

Northern returns two strong juniors in Sam Hoffer, who placed 20th at the state tournament, and Jeff Kingsbury, who just missed qualifying. They'll be pushed by freshman Kyle Niemann, who is averaging around 40 over nine holes, and sophomore Chris Speaker, who won a couple of summer tournaments on the Titleist Junior Tour.

McDonough's stay among the top teams in the conference will be tested this season as the Rams have only one senior, Matt Myers. Junior Cam Fuller will step in as McDonough's top player, replacing District IV champion D.R. Cox, who graduated. College of Southern Maryland Coach Ned Spearbeck, who is also the pro at Hawthorne Country Club, is McDonough's new coach.

J.R. Herrin, who was part of Westlake's first graduating class in 1996, returns to coach the Wolverines' golf team. He has a strong top four of senior Kyle Kirby and sophomore Tyler Brendlinger, both returning All-Extras, along with seniors Robert Oxley and Daniel Springer.

Cousins Steven and Ryan Sapp lead a five-member senior class that gives Leonardtown a good shot at repeating as St. Mary's County champion. But Raiders Coach Ben Weiland will not overlook his five underclassmen, especially freshman Tyler Pegg, who has been very impressive this summer.

While Patuxent's success will probably be tied to that of junior Andrew Wiley. Panthers coach Karl Brungot said there are two others "keeping Andrew on his toes" for the team's top spot -- senior Zack Klares and junior Chris Fox. Fox wasn't even among Patuxent's top six last season, but "he decided to get serious about his game," said Brungot, and improved dramatically.

Chopticon's Terry Mumau has his top players back -- junior Tyler Morris and senior Alan Mattingly -- from a team that hovered around the middle of the conference last season.

Great Mills returns half of its lineup, including juniors Daniel Detemple and Robert Guy and senior Nick Diaduk, who has improved noticeably since shooting in the 50s as a freshman. Last season, he was shooting in the mid-40s, and Hornets Coach Steven Wolfe hopes Diaduk can continue that progress this fall.

Huntingtown has only three players with any experience but a coach -- Jim Hall -- with the most in the SMAC. R.J. Persetic, a Calvert transfer, is one of the Hurricanes' two seniors. Junior Daryl Kingman, who also came over from Calvert, had a very strong summer season, Hall said.

Like most of the SMAC's other teams, Calvert is struggling to overcome the loss of players to Huntingtown. The Cavaliers return two golfers -- senior Scott Madara and junior Lee Baker -- and Coach Jeremy Kurtz plans to build his program around them and nine freshmen and sophomores.

Fred Ashby takes over a Lackey program that struggled to compete in the SMAC. The Chargers have had trouble attracting golfers. This season they have nine, including seven freshmen.

La Plata senior Brent Martin won the SMAC championship last year and will lead the Warriors this season with fellow senior Joe Gross Jr., a three-time All-Met.Northern's Sam Hoffer placed 20th at the state tournament last season. The Patriots also will be helped by a pair of strong underclassmen.Joe Gross Jr., a three-time All-Met, has helped lead the Warriors to consecutive SMAC titles.