Just before 7 a.m. Aug. 18, the members of the Patuxent team were chatting away, and laughter filled the air as they headed toward the practice field.
Nearby, Panthers Coach Charlie Raphael was sipping on his coffee and couldn't help but smile at how his team was bonding before the early morning session.
After all, it would be hard for people familiar with the program to believe that this was the same troubled team Raphael inherited when he took over as coach before the 2001 season.
Before Raphael's arrival, no coach had stayed at Patuxent for more than one season. They all had the same problem: fielding a team. In 2000, the Panthers managed only four victories and were often defeated by multiple goals, even losing some games by double-digit margins.
"When I got the opportunity to come here, I said, 'Hey, all we're going to do is learn to play and that's it,' " Raphael said. "Every girl here is going to get better. It's going to be incumbent on every single player to get to the level they want. I don't come in and say we're gonna win next year. [The players] all say, 'Look, we buy into it and we're going to work on trapping and passing and moving. We'll worry about winning later.' "
From the beginning, Raphael's players knew things would be different. During the first tryouts, Raphael decided to cut five players and replace them with four freshmen, believing it would be more beneficial to build for the future.
Throughout those tryouts, Kayla Schrumpf, Katie Woodard, Jeana Rozran and Kayla Heron thought they were destined for the junior varsity team until the last day of practice, when Raphael pulled the four friends aside and told them they would play for him.
"All four of us have been best friends for like a long time," said Schrumpf, a midfielder. "The last day [of tryouts] was the day that we really proved ourselves. We did a shooting drill and we all have the best shots. Charlie, when he saw us taking those shots, he kind of was more comfortable around us and we felt" more like varsity players.
The quartet realized it was going to be a long first season because of the 10 underclassmen in the starting lineup. They won four games in 2001 but more importantly started to believe in the system.
"It was really frustrating," said Woodard, a captain since her sophomore year. "But we kept our heads up and kept going. Every year we're working harder and the skill level is getting better and everything is getting better. Charlie is one of the main reasons [for the turnaround]. I think if we didn't have a coach like him we wouldn't be the team we are."
Raphael is a specialist at turning around troubled programs. In the mid-1990s, he took over the program at Centreville following a winless season. Two years later, the Wildcats were celebrating a district title.
Things have not happened quite that fast for the Panthers. In 2002, Raphael's second season, Patuxent finished 7-7. Last season, despite moving up from Class 3A to 4A, the Panthers again posted a .500 record, playing the majority of the season without an injured Schrumpf and only 14 players on the varsity roster.
Optimism is high for the four seniors, who started this long journey with Raphael.
"We want the SMAC [championship]; we want it really, really bad," said Rozran, the team's leading scorer last season. "We have worked our butts off for four years to have a really great core of girls. Now I really feel like, 'Hey, it's Patuxent's time to shine.' We've been the underdogs all of our other years."