Some of Atholton's football players screamed, some danced on the sideline, some grabbed the water cooler and doused Coach Chuck Fales to celebrate their 29-7 victory over Centennial on Saturday.

"They were going crazy, absolutely crazy," Fales said. "It was like they had just won the Super Bowl."

In fact, the Raiders had won something else: their first game after nine consecutive losses dating from last season.

"We had music playing in the locker room, and then we went to our homecoming dance, and it felt better knowing we won," said Atholton junior fullback Patrick Hayden, who scored on a seven-yard pass in the first quarter. "All that work we did during practice since the season started paid off because we won."

Winning football games has not come easily in recent months at Centennial, Atholton and Oakland Mills, which entered last week with just one victory combined -- a 26-16 win by Oakland Mills on Sept. 4.

A byproduct of the county producing four teams -- Glenelg, Long Reach, Mount Hebron and River Hill -- that entered last week with a combined record of 27-1 is that more teams are experiencing the opposite side of the spectrum.

But just because a team has been eliminated from playoff contention doesn't mean the final stretch of the season is meaningless.

"It doesn't matter what happened so far; these last three games are huge," said Fales before the Centennial game. "The way you play in your last three games is something you can build on for next year. There's still football left to be played."

To prepare for last weekend's games, Atholton, Centennial and Oakland Mills practiced in the rain and spent a few hours studying film of their opponents, looking for ways to walk off the field winners.

"Nothing changes; the preparation stays the same," Oakland Mills Coach Dick Hendershott said. "Just because you lose a few games doesn't mean you're never going to win."

In fact, Centennial Coach Jamie Wagner, Fales and Hendershott agree that changing their weekly routine or strategy would send contradictory messages to their teams.

"I could start pulling kids up from junior varsity or changing our offense, but why would I do that," Wagner said. "From the first day of the season we asked our kids to believe in our system, and they still believe even though we started 0-6. It will work. And if there was someone on the JV who we thought could help us, they'd be on varsity by now. I don't want to pull a young player up to take the spot of a senior who's done the best he could do because that would be like a slap in the face to the senior."

Fales also didn't have any junior varsity players on his team last week, even though he asked several of them if they'd like to play with the big boys.

"I had a few of them in my office, and they told me they would rather stay in JV where they are undefeated than come up to varsity and see what they can do," Fales said. "They all would have played, too. But what can I do. Maybe it might be different if we had won some games."

Atholton senior quarterback Jimmy McQuilkin said the team is still dedicated to winning.

"Last year, some players on the team gave up, but not this year," he said. "I try not to think about starting the season 0-7, I just go over in my head what I need to do to help us get our first win."

Said Centennial sophomore running back Justin Harris: "What am I doing to prepare for our last three games? I'm thinking about getting three wins."

So there were Harris and his teammates practicing the same plays they've used all season as the sun began to set one day last week. Wagner and his coaching staff kept telling players to "imagine how good it will feel to win that first game," and "you have 16 days left in the season, do you want to remember it?" and preaching the team's one-word motto: believe.

"We still have the chance to show people no one can walk right over us, and we can make a name for Centennial football," sophomore running back Alex Bechta said. "You work so hard at practice, you want to go out there and play well."

So does Oakland Mills senior running back Kelly Wilson. That's why he goes to practice and studies his playbook, and still watches an Emmitt Smith video before every game.

Time is running out on the Scorpions' season, and possibly, Wilson's days as a football player. He knows upcoming games against Centennial and Hammond will be the biggest of his life.

"Why? Because I need to show college coaches I can play on the next level, and I only have two more games left, and I might never get to play again in my life," Wilson said. "I need to show what I can do so I can make a highlight tape to send to colleges so I can get recruited and get a scholarship."

Wilson was one of few Scorpions to provide a memorable play during a 40-22 loss to Wilde Lake, scoring on a 21-yard run to finish with 93 yards on 12 carries.

Other seniors don't view their final high school games as an audition for college coaches.

McQuilkin acknowledges that nine days from now -- as soon as he walks off the field Nov. 5 -- he'll likely never play another game of organized football. But until then, he'll continue to meet senior teammate Dan McCormick for the same pre-game breakfast, a blueberry bagel with strawberry cream cheese and a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

"I'm happy I played this year, at least we're not getting thumped like we did last year -- at least a lot of our games this year were close," McQuilkin said. "I'm going to miss it."

"Football's fun; it's the only time you can hit a guy," Hayden said. "It's fun to be out there with my friends and knock people down, which I can't do when I play basketball and baseball. It was important for us to win because it showed we can win and it's just not all losses for us. It's big because we have confidence for rest of the season, and it should help us next year, too."

"There's still football left to be played," said Atholton Coach Chuck Fales, shown here congratulating players on a win.Centennial's Alex Bechta, above, gains some yards against Atholton. Below, Jimmy McQuilkin hands off. Saturday's 29-7 win was the Raiders' first after nine consecutive losses, with three regular season games remaining.