J.B. Walton did a double take when he looked at the calendar this week. This was a different week of practice for Lackey's senior lineman; it's Westlake week. So why isn't it November, like it has always been?

"It feels a little funny because the last couple of years, we've had time to get ready for this," Walton said. "This year, it came up so quick."

The rivalry that has highlighted the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference the past two years -- with a pair of regular season-capping meetings, followed by postseason rematches two weeks later -- makes its 2005 appearance much earlier than usual. Lackey will host Westlake tomorrow, in each team's third game of the season.

There has not been a season's worth of buildup and hype leading up to this game, but that won't temper the anticipation. Unlike in the past two seasons, the teams have not had a chance to leave the rest of the SMAC in the dust as they head to a regular season finale that determines the conference champion. This game has a markedly different feel from its past four incarnations.

"It's real weird," Westlake senior defensive end Darius Powell said. "We're so used to playing them at the end."

Westlake has looked impressive in its two victories, winning by a combined 89-6, while flaunting its trio of ACC signees -- Powell (North Carolina), Aaris Reed (North Carolina) and Pha'Terrell Washington (Maryland). Lackey, meantime, has won all four meetings the past two seasons and has won 17 straight home games (dating from 2002) and 18 in a row at home against SMAC opponents.

Chopticon Athletic Director Rich O'Donnell, who coordinates scheduling for the SMAC, said football schedules -- set in biennial cycles -- are devised by putting in randomly generated matchups while considering rivalries. So the timing of the Lackey-Westlake games in the past two cycles has not been intentional, he said.

In scholastic sports, rarely do two teams -- and just two -- stay above the rest of the conference for such a prolonged period. And there is a chance that the early meeting this season might prevent one of the teams ultimately from separating itself from the rest of the conference.

"It adds a lot more drama because you're going to have one team kind of coming back to the pack," La Plata Coach Chris Davidson said. "Now, it sets up who clearly is the number one team for the rest of the season. But, still, the winner and loser of that game could both have a hangover next week."

In the past two years, both teams had to look ahead to the start of the playoffs immediately after playing. Neither had time for a letdown.

This year's game could affect how the conference shakes out this season, unlike the past two when each season built up to the Lackey-Westlake game. Even the winning team tomorrow night will have a long way to go to claim the conference title. And the losing team?

"If we lose, are we going to fall apart?" Lackey senior linebacker Bryan Gibbons said. "If they lose, are they going to fall apart?"

The loser might suffer a dent in its reputation, but most in the SMAC say both teams will ascend to their true talent level as the season progresses.

"Win or lose, we're both still going to be chased," Westlake junior linebacker Kahlil Permenter said.

Westlake's Aaris Reed, above, should have a hand in tomorrow's outcome. Lackey's J.B. Walton, below, said of the unusually early game: "This year, it came up so quick."