The River Hill boys' soccer team needed to regroup after a 3-2 loss to county rival Atholton on Sept. 20 that dropped its record to 1-1-1. For a team hoping to defend its Maryland 3A title, it was an inauspicious start to the season.

That setback, however, seemed to spark the Hawks. They won their next four games to enter the week 5-1-1. Just as important, River Hill did not allow a goal in those four victories -- an indication that the Hawks have regained some of their swagger.

In a meeting after the Atholton loss, the Hawks talked about "playing every game like it's our last," senior captain Matt Stara said. "Every game is our last time playing that team. Against Atholton we didn't come out prepared. We need to come out as if every team is equal to us."

River Hill lost seven starters from last year's state championship team, and it took time for the Hawks to adjust to a more direct style of play.

"It's a totally different team than last year," said River Hill Coach Bill Stara, Matt's father. "I just think it's a question of spending time together and finding out what we do well and what we don't do well."

One of the Hawks' strengths is defense. Matt Stara, a second team All-Met defender, had three goals through seven games. Senior Justin White and junior Olatunji Williams also help shore up the back, while senior goalkeeper Matt Moss had five shutouts through seven games.

"If we settle things down in the back," Bill Stara said, "usually things will settle themselves going forward."

River Hill plays a crucial county contest Tuesday against Mount Hebron, the only team with an undefeated county record as of Tuesday. The Hawks, however, are approaching that game with a focus on the bigger picture -- not just how the result affects the county standings, but how it affects seeding in the 3A East Region tournament.

Bill Stara called the realigned 3A East a "group of death" because it now contains many of the state's most accomplished teams, such as Severna Park, the reigning 3A South champion and state runner-up, and Fallston, last year's 3A North winner. "Hebron is obviously an important game, but winning the games that we're supposed to win is probably more important so we can stay home more than we're going away in the playoffs," Stara said.

If the Hawks end up playing deep into the postseason again, they may look back on their loss to Atholton as a turning point.

"I think we're on the same pages of playing to our highest capability," Matt Stara said. "Hopefully it carries through to the rest of the year."