Before the season began, the Northern field hockey team circled the date on the schedule: Oct. 3. At Patuxent. The Patriots saw the game as a chance to show that the guard would change in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.

They didn't let themselves down.

The Patriots' 3-1 victory Monday snapped Patuxent's 26-game conference winning streak. Northern, the only team with an undefeated league record, moved into sole possession of first place in the SMAC.

"We waited all year for this. I think right now, this made my senior year complete," said Northern midfielder Bailey Gronbeck, who has witnessed Patuxent's dominance since joining the varsity as a sophomore. "I don't think my smile is going away anytime soon."

The win gave the Patriots (9-1, 7-0 SMAC) the inside track on the conference title, but some unchecked items remain on Northern's to-do list. Namely, improving on last season's playoff finish, the best of any SMAC team: a loss to eventual champion Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the 3A semifinals.

Northern knew what to expect against Patuxent. The teams played in a non-league game Sept. 10, a 1-0 Panthers victory.

Northern was effective if not blunt in its approach Monday: Keep the pressure on Patuxent's defense, and eventually something would break. Northern held a 17-7 advantage in shots on goal, and after Patuxent (8-2, 7-1) grabbed a 1-0 lead at halftime on a goal by Mary Strain, the Patriots' plan gradually began to succeed.

Gronbeck, Stephanie Lloyd and Samantha Colaianni scored goals in almost identical fashion. The Patriots would unleash three or four shots in a row on Patuxent goalie Whitney Thomas and, with a crowd in front of the cage, one of the players would break free, find the ball and put it in the net.

That has been the Patriots' approach all season. After struggling offensively last year, Northern has found its scoring touch. The Gronbeck-led midfield has controlled possession, and forwards Brittany Horak (seven goals) and Lauren Smith (six goals) have been the beneficiaries.

"Our whole focus was to play 60 minutes. We've been working on that all season," Northern Coach Dawn Moore said. "You play until you hear that whistle. It doesn't matter if the ball's in the cage or if it's not in the cage, you have to keep going until you hear that whistle."

Despite the Panthers' setback, the ruling class in the SMAC still appears evident. Patuxent's only other loss came to Spalding, one of Anne Arundel's top teams. Coach Lynn Powell said that at least now her team knows what it's like to learn from a loss.

"I said to them after the game, it isn't all bad that they lost, although losing is never good," Powell said. "They're going to be ready for regionals. After so many years of being on top, they're going to possibly have a different perspective going into the next few games."