One by one, 10 Southern Maryland golfers walked off the University of Maryland Golf Course on Thursday afternoon shaking their heads, wondering if that was the same course they played two days earlier.

The weather was the same for both rounds of the Maryland state tournament. The only tangible difference was the sequence in which they played the 18 holes.

But look closely, Northern junior Sam Hoffer said, and you could see how fast the greens were playing. Only two of the 10 area golfers -- and 25 of the 75 statewide -- posted scores Thursday lower than their first round total.

"It was a day of grinding," said Hoffer, who shot a 4-over 75 for a two-day total of 148, which put him in a three-way tie for seventh place. "Any par was a bonus."

Churchill (316-292) was the only team to improve its score the second day -- its 292 was 19 strokes better than any other team Thursday -- and overtake first-round leader Northern for its third consecutive 4A/3A championship.

Northern's two-day score of 616 (305-311) was three strokes lower than third-place Walter Johnson's (306-313), giving the Patriots their best state tournament showing.

"I said that if we go out and play solid golf, and someone beats us, then so be it," Northern Coach Rob Halstead said. Churchill "didn't shoot a 292 on a pitch and putt. They shot it on a tournament-ready golf course."

La Plata senior Brent Martin had Southern Maryland's second-best score, behind Hoffer. Martin's two-day 153 (77-76) tied him with four others for 15th. Three area players -- Northern's Jeff Kingsbury (76-78) and Chris Speaker (79-75) and Westlake's Robert Oxley (74-80) -- were in a tie for 20th at 154.

"It was a lot faster," said Oxley, who said Thursday that he needed 40 putts -- half his second-round strokes. "I don't know if my stroke wasn't there or what."

Hoffer spoke for many players when he lamented that the fast greens forced him to play his shots short of the hole. When he hit past the hole and had to putt downhill, his putts often raced past the hole.

But it was tough to find that small spot just short of the hole without the approach shot landing short of the green.

"You definitely have to pay attention to how the greens dry during the day," said Hoffer, who had just one birdie Thursday after getting three in the first round. "I was trying to leave [my shots] behind the hole. I didn't want to have to come back down [the green]."

Northern began Thursday in an unusual spot -- the target of everyone else. For much of the season, the Patriots aimed for two-time defending SMAC champion La Plata. Even after defeating the Warriors in the regular season, Northern was still not the unquestioned conference leader until it won the SMAC tournament convincingly.

But when the second round started, the five other qualifying teams all looked up at Northern, and the Patriots, according to some of their players, collectively wondered if they could repeat their best round of the season.

Halstead "said to play it like we did Tuesday," said Speaker, who is one of six top Patriot players expected to return next year. The coach instructed his players to "take chances and don't play like you're in the lead. Play like you're behind. . . . Still, a lot of the guys all said, 'I don't know if we can do that again.' "

Sam Hoffer of Northern, who had the best round of any Southern Maryland golfer, appears disappointed after missing a putt. The Patriots finished second as a team.