Northern 1, McDonough 1

For a good five minutes immediately after his team tied visiting McDonough, 1-1, on Thursday night, Northern junior Colin Leadbeter stood hunched over with his hands on his knees, chasing fresh air much like he did the ball for the previous 100 minutes.

That's life as the defending Southern Maryland Athletic Conference champion.

"Right now, you want to get your dominance down in the SMAC," Leadbeter said. "Last year, we played so well, we expected to go out every time and dominate, and that was huge for us."

Two weeks into the season, it is clear that the chase for the SMAC title won't be resolved soon. Each of the 12 teams has at least one loss, and there is no consistency among the results.

Just look at three Calvert County rivals for proof. On Sept. 9, Calvert beat Huntingtown, 1-0, then lost to Northern, 4-1, the next day. A week later, Huntingtown beat Northern, 4-2.

"It's such a balanced league," said Northern Coach Jaime Webster, noting that the Hurricanes' bench rushed the field after defeating the Patriots. "It's so competitive."

Given that no one team has risen above the rest of the field, it has placed added importance on these early-season matches. Each result might shed light on whether a team can bear the target of the rest of the conference.

McDonough -- with 11 returning players, including nine starters -- hopes to carry that burden. While Thursday's tie kept the Rams (4-1-1 overall, 2-1-1 SMAC) slightly behind Westlake (5-3, 4-1) and Huntingtown (4-2, 3-1), they know they have to take advantage of games like that one if they are to win their first SMAC title.

"If you look at seasons past," McDonough Coach Matt Petricoin said, "it seems like the early-season problems come back to haunt you, like, 'I wish we could have had that loss back.' A tie is a tie. It's not a win, but it's also not a loss."

That's what both teams seemed to be trying desperately to avoid after Northern senior Ricky Balestrieri tied the game in the 57th minute. Balestrieri answered a first-half goal on a free kick by McDonough's Brian Richter by pouncing on a loose ball in front of the net after McDonough struggled to clear for about two minutes.

The pace picked up noticeably after Balestrieri's goal. In the 78th minute, McDonough senior Brandon Gross picked up a loose ball just over midfield, strode in on the left side and fired a shot from about 30 yards away that narrowly missed the right corner of the goal.

Midway through the second overtime, Northern senior Nathan Sawyer had a free kick from nearly the identical spot as Richter's first-half goal -- about 40 yards away in the dead center of the field. His shot caromed off the crossbar and hit the back of McDonough goalkeeper Josh Shumaker before going out of bounds.

Webster said he welcomed the tie after his team lost its previous two matches and fell behind, 2-0, in each of its past three. That brief slump might have been the decisive blow for most teams' championship hopes, but the Patriots (4-2-1, 1-2-1) won the SMAC last season despite having two conference losses.

"That'll win it again this year, at the least," Webster said. "Maybe it'll be more."

Richter said: "These games are huge. They're the ones that start you off for the whole season, and they build on each other."

McDonough's Brandon Gross, left, fights Northern's Dale Pritts for the ball. Gross almost scored the game-winner.