Can the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference make a statement at the state level?

Anne Arundel and Montgomery County schools have long dominated the state tournament. But increasing participation in Southern Maryland and the inception this summer of the Southern Maryland Explosion club -- whose roster includes many of the league's top players -- indicate that the SMAC is closing the gap.

Can Northern take the next step?

The Patriots advanced farther than any other SMAC team at the state tournament last year, losing to eventual champion Bethesda-Chevy Chase, 2-1, in the 3A semifinals. With six senior starters returning, Coach Dawn Moore is cautiously optimistic that the team is better geared for a run at a state title.

Could a changing of the guard be in store in the SMAC?

Last season the SMAC title race was a three-way competition between usual favorites La Plata, Calvert and champion Patuxent. But with graduation depleting several of the stronger programs, another school could have an opening to climb atop the standings. Second-year Huntingtown -- which pooled its athletes from three of the league's top programs, Northern, Calvert and Patuxent -- could be poised for a breakout season.

F MONICA WYNN, CALVERT, SR.

The All-Extra selection finished with 11 goals and six assists last season and helped lead the Cavaliers to the 2A South Region final.

M BAILEY GRONBECK, NORTHERN, SR.

After leading Northern to the state tournament for the first time since 2001, Gronbeck sharpened her stick skills during the offseason and will be the offensive centerpiece for the defense-minded Patriots.

M ANGELA CLARKE, THOMAS STONE, SR.

The Cougars' assist leader last year, Clarke should see an increase in her scoring total because she will play a bigger role around the net.