His team trailing Mount Hebron by nine points, junior quarterback Matt Barbusca of Reservoir took the snap on his team's eight-yard line and rolled right with 34 seconds remaining in the first half. Barbusca waited for the defense to converge before throwing a screen pass across the field to senior running back Travis Davis, who sprinted 75 yards. The run and a facemask penalty put the ball on the Mount Hebron two-yard line.

With two seconds left, Barbusca dropped back and found senior Devon Brown in the end zone, pulling his team within three points at intermission. Reservoir seized control in the third quarter. Leading by two points with one minute 41 seconds remaining in the game, it stopped Mount Hebron a yard short on fourth and three near midfield and countered with a touchdown to secure a 38-28 victory.

Did "we make those plays last year?" Reservoir Coach Joe Lewis said after his team's first victory over an opponent with a winning record in its three-year history. "We had our opportunities to make them last year, but we didn't, so the answer would have to be no. But that was last year."

Howard Coach David Glenn said his team no longer resembles last year's squad, which also failed to beat a team with a winning record. But he was full of optimism a day after his team forced six turnovers -- returning two for touchdowns -- in a 26-7 victory over previously undefeated Wilde Lake, the Lions' first over the Wildecats in five years.

"Last year, we were the ones getting pushed around and giving up big plays," he said. "Now, we're the ones making the big plays."

Atholton lost to Long Reach, 28-13, but the game was tied at halftime, and the Raiders never trailed by more than a touchdown until the final minutes -- a significant improvement for a team that failed to move the ball inside the Long Reach 25-yard line in a 20-0 loss last year.

The performances by Reservoir (2-1), Howard (2-1) and Atholton (1-2) -- a trio that won a combined eight games last year -- illustrate what several coaches think is an end to the county league being dominated by a few teams.

Last year, four teams -- Glenelg, River Hill, Mount Hebron and Long Reach -- opened 7-0, but this year, only Glenelg and River Hill, each at 3-0, are undefeated.

"When you look at the league as a whole, it's really gotten a lot better," said Wilde Lake Coach Doug DuVall, who is in his 34th season. "The commitment level, the quality of coaches [and] what's happening in the offseason has raised the overall level of football in Howard County,"

Coaches point to three major reasons for county-wide improvement: teams participating in the offseason NFL High School Player Development Camp and other scouting combines; the restructuring of the tech-magnet program; and the stability of coaching staffs.

In previous years in Howard County, football players and teams had limited opportunities to improve during the offseason.

For the past two years, the county has held an NFL High School Player Development Camp, a five-day after-school camp in May.

In late May through June, coaches conduct a one-hand touch 7-on-7 passing league that enables teams to improve in a structured setting. Rising seniors also attend a statewide combine held at the University of Maryland, where they see how they stack up against other high school players in sprinting, jumping and agility tests.

"Doing all of those things is like having spring practice, and that's something we never had before," Mount Hebron Coach Larry Luthe said. "These are big opportunities for teams and individual players to get better, and teams are taking advantage of it."

"It made me a better player because when I went to the NFL camp, I saw that there were players on other teams that were better than me," said junior cornerback Anthony Elliott of Howard. "So it made me work harder. If I didn't go to the camp, then I don't know if I made as much improvement."

Said Barbusca: "We basically killed ourselves with how hard we worked to get better this offseason so we could be good this year. We all went to camps together, and it gave us more team unity since we were always around each other. Now, it's like we are all playing for each other and not just ourselves."

Before the 2004-05 school year, the county changed the structuring of its tech-magnet program. Since 1996, when magnet schools Long Reach and River Hill opened, students accepted into the program transferred to one of those two schools, depending on which side of Route 29 they resided. But now, students in the tech-magnet program attend -- and compete for -- their home school.

"Now, every coach knows what kids are coming into the building, and you can get them as freshmen and build a program. You no longer have to worry about losing who you think will be a good player to another school," Long Reach Coach Pete Hughes said. "Now, it's up to each coach to recruit the kids in their own building. I think it's created a level playing field."

The teams also have more coaching consistency this season. Every county school retained its coach from last year, the first time that's happened in five years. It has allowed players to adjust to a system instead of starting over for a new coach.

"We've had a year to grow as a team and work in the same system we had last year," Barbusca said. "We didn't have to go through any changes this year. Everything was the same, so we could just work on getting better. Now the games we let slip away last year are not slipping away. We are doing what it takes to win them."

Luthe agreed.

"You look at Reservoir from last year and this year, and it's not even close," he said. "I think that's a big credit to Coach Lewis and his staff because he came in last year and has made them a better football team. We beat them last year, but this year, they just flat out beat us. They were the better team."

Reservoir's Travis Davis, with ball, had a key reception from Barbusca just before halftime.Quarterback Matt Barbusca of Reservoir checks in with Coach Joe Lewis.Reservoir's Terrell Brooks tackles Mount Hebron running back Chris Eccleston. The Gators recorded the first win over a team with a winning record in their three-year history.