There's no time to rest.

Not for Leonardtown, which returned from a 16-day layoff to play undefeated Patuxent on Wednesday. Two days later it had to play undefeated Westlake.

But it's not easy for Patuxent, either. After facing the Raiders it had to face unbeaten Northern on Friday. And then there's Thomas Stone and Calvert, each with just a single loss.

Things are definitely different in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference this season. Six teams still have a shot at the conference title with three weeks left in the regular season. The evenness is a far cry from past years, which have been dominated by just a few teams.

"[In the past] we predominantly had two teams that are up top, two or three teams challenging, and then you have a lot of middle teams and then some weaker teams," said Leonardtown Coach Jennifer Henderson. "But this year I think there is a lot of parity. It's tough [playing] games back to back, and it's not going to get easier."

The Raiders' game Wednesday against Patuxent was a perfect example of how far some teams have come. The Panthers, who have never before enjoyed a winning season and were shut out by Leonardtown a year ago, gave the Raiders all they could handle before succumbing, 2-1.

On Friday, the Raiders fell to Westlake, 4-2. Patuxent rebounded with a 2-0 victory over Northern.

In the game Wednesday, Patuxent countered Leonardtown's speed with physical, aggressive play. Attacking every loose ball, the Panthers created the best chances early, but Leonardtown would strike first. In the 20th minute, Raiders midfielder Heather Cooke found herself alone in the middle of the field and was able to split two Patuxent defenders before sliding a shot behind Panthers goalie Kara Higgs for the 1-0 lead.

"We came out a little flat tonight," Henderson said after that game. "It was like the first game of the season all over again. We got our rhythm going about 10 minutes into the game."

The Panthers countered six minutes later when a free kick from midfielder Kayla Schrumpf was deflected by Leonardtown goalie Kelsey Stauff but went right to the foot of Patuxent forward Jeana Rozran, who one-timed the ball to even the score.

Cooke came through again for the Raiders, scoring her second, and the deciding, goal of the game 13 minutes into the second half. Despite constant pressure, the Panthers were unable to tie the match.

"We had opportunity after opportunity," said Patuxent fourth-year coach Charlie Raphael. "For us to even entertain the thought that we could beat a program like that this year shows how far we've come. That's all you can ask for."

Thomas Stone on the Mend

Things could have gone bad in a hurry for Thomas Stone (3-1 SMAC, 4-1) after its opening loss to Leonardtown. Before the end of that game's first half, the Cougars lost three players to knee injuries. Forward Crystal Gale and goalie Mandy Aybar are expected to return to the lineup, but forward Amanda Sparrow may be out for the season.

Since then, Thomas Stone has regrouped, reeling off four consecutive wins, most recently dispatching McDonough, 4-2, on Thursday. Looking ahead, things won't get easier for the Cougars. They will face two of the top teams in the conference, Northern and Westlake, on Oct. 11 and 12, respectively.

"There are really only one or two teams that you can look at as definite wins," said first-year coach Tim Major. "There is never a break, and you never really know what you're going to get [from the teams]."

The Patuxent Panthers celebrate their 1-0 victory over Calvert last month. The Panthers made Leondardtown work for its 2-1 win Wednesday.