The second week of football practice had begun and 16 Chopticon players still didn't have their full equipment. Braves Coach Tony Lisanti could not have been happier.

Lisanti said about 120 players came out to play football for Chopticon this season. More than 90 greeted Leonardtown Coach Alan Raley on the first day. Great Mills Coach Bill Griffith had 84 show up.

"We've had half [the total in the past], but nothing approaching this kind of turnout," Lisanti said. "We've got more kids than equipment. We're still waiting to get some more."

The interest in football is stronger in St. Mary's County this year, thanks largely to the introduction of freshman football. The program, a precursor to junior varsity, has been in place at schools in Charles and Calvert counties. For the past five years, St. Mary's coaches had been lobbying for it, claiming it was the best way to stay competitive with their Southern Maryland Athletic Conference counterparts.

"We've been telling people for years we needed a freshman team to compete with the Charles County teams," said Lisanti, who is in his first year as the Braves head coach, following 16 seasons as an assistant. "It was not a level playing field. We hope this makes us more competitive."

Chopticon's 2000 appearance in the Maryland 3A semifinals is the only time since 1991 that a St. Mary's team has qualified for the playoffs. Over the past four seasons, the three county schools have combined to go 24-94. They have combined to win just 10 games over that span against teams from Charles and Calvert counties.

Meantime, a team for Charles or Calvert county has played for a state championship in five of the past six years.

"The county hasn't done well the last few years," said Griffith, who took over the Hornets' program after six years as an assistant, "but this shows the kids still have confidence in the program and the coaches."

The goal of having a freshman team is to teach fundamentals to players before they move on to the junior varsity and varsity. When they get to those teams, practices can be run at a higher level because coaches don't have to spend time teaching players such basics as where to line up to start a play.

"It's going to take a couple of years to feel the effect of it," said Raley, who had 40 freshmen try out, "but the guys will come in now knowing the system. I won't have to teach them how to line up when they get here."

A freshman team will also go a long way toward keeping players interested in the sport. With only varsity and junior varsity teams, plenty of freshmen are going to get cut. Coaches rarely can cut a player and then woo him to try out the next season.

"Once you get rid of them, they don't come back," Raley said.

But with a spot on the freshman team, a player not only feels as if he has a future in the program, but is also learning by participating. With only varsity and junior varsity programs, freshmen are often left on the bench, playing behind older teammates.

Coaches said players could easily lose interest in the sport and might not come back the next season.

"Those kids that are freshmen are going to get on the field for 10 games," Griffith said. "They're not going to sit on the bench and play behind some sophomore, who sat as a freshman."

Coaches hope that, just like any skill, playing football can be improved by repetition. Within a few years, they will begin seeing players coming out for varsity with a firm grasp of fundamentals and some game experience that cannot be taught on a practice field.

"What we're seeing is more enthusiasm out of the freshmen, and it's because they have more opportunity," Lisanti said. "The big deal is keeping these freshmen involved and interested."

Austin Samblanet beats fellow freshman Jamie Turner to the ball during a drill at Great Mills High. Freshman play begins this year in the county.