It should not have surprised Patuxent volleyball coach Erica Weems that it took her team until now to play up to its abilities and her expectations.

With only four returning players from last season, Weems didn't figure her team would contend for a Southern Maryland Athletic Conference title. Instead, she knew the regular season would be an extended year of practice to get the Panthers ready for the Maryland 4A East Region tournament.

After Patuxent's 25-18, 25-19, 25-12 victory over Thomas Stone on Tuesday, Weems thinks her team is finally ready to contend with top Anne Arundel County teams such as Arundel and Broadneck.

Before losing to Broadneck in the regional final last year, the Panthers won nine of 10 matches after losing four of their first six. Since losing its first two this season, Patuxent has won seven of nine.

Against Thomas Stone, "we were hitting on all cylinders," Weems said. "I guess now we're clicking, just at the same point when we did last year."

Part of the reason it took so long is because Patuxent is relying on so many young players this season.

"They're a little nervous coming in to varsity from JV," junior setter Christy Redgate said. "The hardest thing is you don't want to disappoint your teammates."

Redgate was in that position two years ago, when, Weems said, she became the first Patuxent freshman to play varsity. Redgate said she had a tough time learning how to motivate her young teammates without sounding too authoritarian.

They came through against Thomas Stone, Redgate said, and players such as sophomore Chrissy Robinson had their best performances of the season.

"I've never seen her hit like that," Redgate said. "I think she and a lot of the other girls were just holding back. Now they're a lot more relaxed, and we're all playing better."

La Plata Catches Up

As senior Jessica Smith and her La Plata teammates were in the midst of defeating Thomas Stone in three games Oct. 14, she thought she saw her team transform before her eyes.

"That was the night our passes were on, our sets were on and our serves were on," said Smith, who had 11 kills. "We actually looked like a Calvert County team."

The opening of Huntingtown diluted some of the talent in Calvert, which gave the rest of the SMAC teams hope that they could close the gap between themselves and the Calvert schools.

Five days after its victory over the Cougars, La Plata's first over Thomas Stone in four years, the Warriors visited Northern to see if that gap has narrowed. In each of the first two games, La Plata played the Patriots close until the midway point.

"We definitely thought" we could hang with them, Smith said. "But that confidence could have been our downfall because then you think they're not as good as they used to be and you ease up and the mental game goes."

Sure enough, in the first two games, the Patriots pulled away around point 15, winning in three games, 25-15, 25-16, 25-6.

La Plata learned it has the skill to stay close with Calvert schools. But the Warriors know they need to stay focused in case they face Northern or Huntingtown in the Maryland 3A South Region tournament.

"After seeing them play, we know we could have done a lot better," Smith said. "We'd be pretty excited if we get to play them again."

Big Win for Leonardtown

Leonardtown's best season in several years got even better when the Raiders defeated Northern, 25-23, 25-27, 25-21, 25-15, on Oct. 14. It was Leonardtown's first victory over a Calvert County team since Raiders Coach Shirley Geisbert joined the program in 1996.

Geisbert said junior middle hitter Becca Steinbach played "the best game I've ever seen her play" in that match, not only blocking as well as she normally does but also moving well during play.

The Raiders (9-4 overall, 5-4 SMAC) took third-ranked Calvert to four games a week earlier, but the victory over the Patriots affirmed Leonardtown's improvement this season.

"That was a big milestone for us," she said. "The girls were just up for it."

But they may not have been as up for it as much as their coach.

During the match, Raiders assistant coach Steve Correll "had to tell me, 'Don't get too anxious or nervous,' " Geisbert said. "The girls had their game face on, and they were prepared. I was just real excited."