The Westlake girls' soccer team had every reason to believe that scoring goals was not going to be an area of concern this season. Returning forward Lauren Russell was supposed to lead a dynamic offense that was expected to allow the Wolverines to vie for the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference title.

But through the first three weeks of the season, Westlake's offense has yet to live up to its billing. Instead, Westlake (4-2-1 overall, 3-1-1 SMAC) finds itself in the middle of the conference race thanks to its defense. Led by the trio of Julie Dempsey, Allie Major and Tracy Miller, the Wolverines have posted three shutouts in their first five SMAC games, allowing only two goals in that span.

"Our defense is a lot better than I thought it would be," Wolverines Coach Will Morris said. "We get opportunities, but we are not finishing."

Contributing to their offensive struggles has been their hectic schedule. Their first seven games have come in a 14-day stretch that has afforded them little time to practice and recover between games. The wear and tear has shown, especially in a 1-1 tie with Calvert and 1-0 loss to Chopticon. On both occasions, the Wolverines had the majority of scoring chances but were unable to put the ball in the net.

Westlake will have to get its offensive problems ironed out in a hurry. Its next game is against SMAC power Leonardtown on Tuesday, and the Wolverines will have to find a way to score if they hope to come out on top.

"We're not going to be able to shut them out, so we have to finish our chances," Morris said.

Close Losses Sting Stone

One look at the record for Thomas Stone (1-4 overall, 1-2 SMAC) could be enough for some teams to underestimate the Cougars. But even though they dropped their first four games of the season before defeating Great Mills, 4-0, on Thursday night, the defeats have been close.

They lost their season opener to perennial state power South River, 1-0, and were defeated by Northern, 3-2, in overtime. A day later, they dropped a tight 1-0 game to Patuxent.

But don't expect Thomas Stone to stay down for long. The Cougars have key veterans, including defenders Sarah Rinn and Tracey Pearson and multitalented midfielder Ashley Simone, and they believe they are more than capable of competing for the SMAC title.

"We have had some disappointing losses to say the least, but they've struggled through and given it what they had," second-year coach Melissa Morris said. "There's some things we're doing very well, but there are a lot of things we need to work on."

Northern Far From Middling

Last season, Northern was squarely in the middle of everything. The Patriots finished sixth in the conference and closed out the season with a .500 record overall and in SMAC play. But if the early portion of this season is any indication, they are making a strong push to the top of the SMAC.

Northern is off to a 5-1-1 start overall, 3-0-1 in the SMAC. The difference? A blend of experience and youth. Last year, the mostly inexperienced Patriots found that they were able to stay close with most teams but had difficulty closing games. But that is a problem they apparently have put in their past.

In the season opener, they overcame a 1-0 deficit to defeat Southern, 2-1, and in their first SMAC game they turned back Thomas Stone in overtime, getting goals from returning standouts Brittany Percich and Kelly O'Steen and the game-winner from freshman Katie Gitlin. After tying Huntingtown, the Patriots turned to freshman Bekah Munnikhuysen, who scored both goals in their 2-1 overtime win over La Plata and assisted on another in Thursday's 2-1 triumph over McDonough.

A big test awaits, however, when they host Patuxent on Thursday.