It's no secret that the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference has not had an abundance of success in past state playoffs. In fact, since its inception, the SMAC has produced one state champion, Leonardtown in 1998.

But the coaches and teams in SMAC prefer to look forward, not back. This season, the level and quality of play have improved. Those affiliated with the league believe this could be a breakthrough year if the teams maintain their level of play.

"My squad is just a lot better than it was last year," said Westlake Coach Will Morris, whose season was ended a year ago by Severna Park in a 3-0 loss. "The talent was there last year, and we just weren't putting it together. This year they knock the ball around so it's nice to see that kind of soccer."

Along with Leonardtown (7-3, 7-1) and Patuxent (10-1, 9-1), the Wolverines (9-3 overall, 9-0) have distanced themselves from the rest of the conference. Those three teams have the best chance to go deep into the postseason.

The Wolverines may be the most complete team in the SMAC. They attack in a variety of ways and are solid defensively. They showed they are a legitimate Maryland 3A contender with a 4-2 victory over Leonardtown earlier in the season and have not slowed down since.

The key to Westlake's game is passing. The Wolverines have the ability to string passes together and set up speedy forward Lauren Russell, who can beat defenders seemingly at will. If that doesn't work, they will look to midfielder Thuy Le, who can find space in any situation and is very effective if she has room to operate.

"I think we really want it," Le said about her team's aspirations. "I think with who we have we have a really good chance this year, we just have to have confidence."

None of the players on Leonardtown's roster were around when the Raiders won their state title, but Coach Jennifer Henderson was, and she has built a program that is consistently at the top of the conference.

"Jen Henderson is the best coach really around here for girls' soccer," Morris said. "She's been that for a long time, and they're going to be there again."

The Raiders have scrambled to replace injured starters late in the season, but they can rely on their top-scoring duo of forward Zehra Oztas and midfielder Heather Cooke to keep the pressure on the opponents they will face in the 3A state tournament.

In only its second year in the 4A classification, Patuxent has grown up quickly. The Panthers have registered their first winning season, won the Calvert Cup and can claim a share of the SMAC crown with a win over Westlake tomorrow.

"All we did was set little goals and take it one goal at a time," Coach Charlie Raphael said. "If we play well, we're going to make it tough on everyone."

Making it tough for other teams is the Panthers' specialty. They play a physical game, clogging passing lanes and creating turnovers that turn into scoring chances. Patuxent is led by a trio of seniors -- midfielders Katie Woodard and Kayla Schrumpf and forward Jeana Rozran -- who have turned the Panthers into conference contenders after past struggles.