Perhaps it was a fitting symbol of how ugly Lackey's season had turned two years ago when some players decided they would rather wear Halloween costumes for their Oct. 30 playoff game against Bethesda-Chevy Chase instead of their regular uniforms.

Lackey lost that game 10-0 to put the finishing touch on a winless season that seemed doomed from the moment five starters were kicked off the team for a preseason prank that involved wrapping a teammate in duct tape.

Senior All-American and second team All-Met defender A.J. DeLaGarza was a sophomore that year, and he wryly chuckles when asked about the season.

"No one cared . . . no one wanted to play anymore," said DeLaGarza of that 0-13 season. "No one wanted to play the game of soccer."

This year Lackey is returning every starter from last season's resurgent squad that finished 9-6-2. DeLaGarza, who said he made an oral commitment Aug. 12 to play for Maryland, will feature prominently for the Chargers.

"The consensus seems to be pointing at Lackey" to be at the top of the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference, said Westlake coach Armand Delacruz, whose Wolverines finished atop the SMAC last season and lost in the 3A state semifinals to co-champion River Hill. "A.J. is the Ryan Russell this season because he is the kid who seems like everyone knows."

However, unlike Russell, Westlake's first-team All-Met midfielder last season, no one seems to know what position DeLaGarza will play. Lackey third-year coach Gary Lesko said DeLaGarza is highly versatile and capable of playing anywhere. Last season he spent equal time at forward, midfield and defense.

DeLaGarza has said he would prefer to play defense, the position he played this summer in leading his U-16 club team, Casa Mia Bays to their second straight national title this summer.

With DeLaGarza playing sweeper, the Casa Mia Bays logged roughly 1,000 consecutive minutes of play during several tournaments without being scored upon.

"He might be the best defender in Maryland," Casa Mia Bays coach Stephen Nichols said. "There is no doubt he led our defense."

DeLaGarza's defense has drawn similar praise from Lesko, who described his prowess in one-on-one defense and a slide tackle that seems to always strike the ball away from an opponent.

"He's one of the best one-on-one defenders I've ever seen," Lesko said. "He can pick up a player at the middle of the field and make it seem like he has the man cornered -- he has the unique ability to shut a player down."

But after scoring a team-leading nine goals and seven assists last season for Lackey, DeLaGarza, whose teammates dubbed him "Juice," is just as capable of contributing as a forward or midfielder.

The Chargers are particularly strong at central midfield this season, with seniors Matt Bourdeau and Wes Dyson. Dyson has shown skill at shoring up the defense, while Bourdeau attacks.

"We expect a lot out of them," Lesko said. "They are both capable of interchanging and that's one of the things we'd like to see them doing."

Lesko said one of Lackey's greatest assets is its experience. The Chargers are senior-dominated, and many of those seniors have played together for nearly three years.

"It takes three years to build a program, and in just about any sport, it takes that time for players to get used to each other and learn the system they are playing in," Lesko said. "The work ethic is there . . . the guys look like they've been playing with each other and they are finally coming around."

Lackey plans to rely heavily on senior All-American and second team All-Met defender A.J. DeLaGarza.