By all accounts, the 2004 Southern Maryland Athletic Conference season should be one of the best ever. Growth within the region is leading to growth on the field. There are a handful of teams that have a legitimate shot at conquering the SMAC this year.

Defending SMAC co-champions Leonardtown and Thomas Stone are expected to be near the top of the standings once again, but the gap between them and the other schools has narrowed.

If Leonardtown expects to repeat it will have to find replacements for All-Extra Player of the Year Kelli Devine (22 goals, 10 assists) and All-Extra goalie Michelle Mattingly, who had seven shutouts last season.

The Raiders will rely on senior forward Zehra Oztas, an All-Extra selection last season with 13 goals and three assists, to lead an experienced junior class headed by Heather Cooke. All-Extra defender Melisa Okenka, Colby Gehrig and Diane Mattingly will pace the defense in front of new starting goalie Kelsey Stauff.

"It will be tough for us at first until the players learn new positions and leadership," Raiders Coach Jennifer Henderson said. "Toward the end of the season, we should be competitive."

Although it has only two seniors, Thomas Stone will have nine starters returning from the team that finished 12-1-1 last year.

Two returning All-Extra performers, forward Shavon Knight (15 goals) and defender Amber Conway, should help make the Cougars the team to beat in the SMAC. Thomas Stone will have to adapt to new head coach Tim Major, who was an assistant at Westlake.

"The biggest thing for us is team play," Major said. "No matter what, we live and die as a team."

Calvert Coach Doug Jones is optimistic after going 11-3-1 a year ago and narrowly missing out on a SMAC title.

The Cavaliers' strength begins with their two captains: All-Extra Stephani Jones controls the midfield and defender Sarah Piccirilli anchors the back line.

After an 11-5 season, Northern is going to have to regroup after losing 15 players from last year's roster.

The Patriots can take solace in the return of midfielder Kelly O'Steen, who returns after missing all but four games last season with a knee injury. In the games she played, O'Steen tallied four goals.

If La Plata is going to be successful, it has to continue the positive trend it has been developing. In 2003, the Warriors improved by winning seven matches, two more than they did in 2002, and their goal output jumped from 17 to 33 during that span. Forward Melissa Loeper, the team's second-leading scorer last year, returns.

The Warriors hope their back line will step up and they will look to seniors Debra Starkey and Megan Alford to lead a rejuvenated defense.

Things are looking up for a Westlake team that returns the majority of its key performers from a 9-5-2 season.

After scoring 16 goals and adding 10 assists in 2003, midfielder Thuy Le returns to lead a potent Wolverines attack. Coach Will Morris calls Le the "complete package" and expects her to significantly improve this season.

For the first time in his nine years at Lackey, Coach Po Artes will have more upperclassmen on his roster than underclassmen. Artes hopes the experience will lead to better results than the Chargers' disappointing 2-10-1 finish a year ago.

Lackey hopes to strengthen its defense by moving midfielder Brittany Hurt back to sweeper. She will try to solidify the defense in front of freshman goalie Ashley Queen, who has been forced into a starting role with incumbent goalie Katie Goddard out with a broken foot.

First-year coach Ruben Casas is going back to the fundamentals with a McDonough squad that won three games last season.

Casas is stressing a passing game that will start with defensive stopper Sarah Koenig. McDonough will hope Koenig can get the ball to midfielder Jessica Able, who will try to find forwards Michelle Anderson and Julie Studds for scoring opportunities.

St. Mary's Ryken is looking to take big strides in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. Brice Elliot takes over as coach after four years as an assistant. Elliot has installed a year-long training program for the team and brought in specialists, such as a goalie coach, to improve the Knights' performance against the tough competition they will face during conference play. Midfielder Kathryn Kopanke will be a player to watch for the Knights.