La Plata first-year girls' soccer coach Chris Butler can remember the moment his team's fortunes began to turn. The Warriors had lost four of their first five games, and when they got off the bus at Patuxent, the players' body language told Butler they didn't feel they could beat a quality Panthers team.

It was then that Butler let his players know that he wasn't about to give up on their season and that they shouldn't either. After a 2-0 loss to Patuxent, the Warriors (6-7 overall, 7-4 Southern Maryland Athletic Conference) went on a tear, winning six of their next seven, culminating with Thursday night's 2-1 overtime win over Huntingtown.

"It's acceptable to lose games, but not when you've already decided you were going to lose before the game started," Butler said. "I told them we weren't going to stop practicing hard, we were going to continue working until we started winning."

Coinciding with Butler's message was the decision to move junior Melissa Loeper, who began the season as sweeper, back to her natural forward position and bring up freshman Corrine Arnold to take over at sweeper. Loeper has responded by leading the Warriors with five goals and five assists, and Arnold has been a stabilizing force for La Plata's back line.

Perfection the Hard Way

You might look at Leonardtown's (12-0, 10-0) undefeated SMAC record and think the path to its fifth SMAC title has been an easy one. Not the case.

This year's championship run was one of the more difficult for Coach Jen Henderson and the Raiders. Although they have put a few lopsided scores on the board, they have also endured their share of nail-biters, grinding out victories over Patuxent, Thomas Stone, Calvert and La Plata.

"I thought the talent level [in the SMAC] had risen," Henderson said. "But I have been very impressed with the caliber of play throughout the season."

The Raiders have received stellar performances from their goalie tandem of freshman Dana O'Neill and senior Kelsey Stauff, who each play a half in games. The duo has combined to post eight shutouts while allowing only six goals.

Chopticon Keeps Climbing

Chopticon's 2-0 win over Northern early in this year's SMAC season was more than just another victory for the Braves, it was a moment that illustrated how far the Chopticon program has advanced in four years. In 2002, the Braves' match-up with the Patriots resulted in an 11-0 defeat.

It has been a steady climb for Chopticon (9-4, 7-3) under fourth-year coach Cathy Jo Edgar. In Edgar's first two seasons, the Braves managed only a single SMAC victory. But last year they climbed to .500, and this year they are guaranteed to finish with a winning record.

"In the past, there was very little consistency here," Edgar said. "Just knowing that the staff will be consistent has helped the players."

How far the Braves go in the 3A playoffs could largely be determined by the stabilizing presence of central midfielder Heather Brubaker. With Brubaker out of the lineup with a sprained toe earlier in the season, the Braves went through their toughest stretch, losing three consecutive games.

Fab Times at Huntingtown

With only three seniors on their roster and as many as five freshmen on the field at a single time, most would assume Huntingtown would struggle in only its second year of existence. But the Hurricanes (4-7-1, 4-5-1) have held their own in the league. In addition to notching their first SMAC win with a 3-2 victory over Chopticon on Sept. 13, each of their five conference losses, to top teams such as Leonardtown and Westlake, have come by a single goal.

Huntingtown has received a surprising boost from a quintet of freshmen: Kelly Kady, Kelcie Davis, Kelsey Kempf, Cynthia Snyder and Britta Vivaldi, referred to affectionately by their teammates and coaches as "The Fab Five."

"They're having a good time and learning how to play and have fun," said first-year coach Gina Hobson. "The girls have more than proven themselves to be a much better team than they were last year."

Rainouts Can Be Good

McDonough's and Westlake's boys' soccer teams will finally meet tomorrow, and the 17-day delay might have worked to both teams' benefit.

The teams were supposed to play Oct. 7, but the game was postponed three times because of rain. Now they will meet with the SMAC title on the line.

McDonough, seeking its first SMAC title, will enter the game 8-1-1 in the conference (11-1-1 overall), having won seven straight. Westlake, the 2003 conference champion, is 7-2-1 in the SMAC (8-4-1 overall).

"There's a lot of drama in this game," McDonough Coach Matt Petricoin said. "If it was an out-of-county team [we were playing], I don't think it would be as big a deal."

Westlake's season might have been saved by the rain. The Wolverines had lost on a last-minute goal to Leonardtown, 2-1, on Sept. 27, and tied Thomas Stone, 1-1, two days later. Their top scorer, senior Konrad Hutt, was limited by a groin injury.

But the rainouts postponed each of Westlake's games until last Monday -- a 19-day layoff. Last week, the Wolverines beat Lackey, 3-1, Huntingtown, 4-2, and Northern, 4-1, to get back into second place.

"After the Stone game we were falling apart," Westlake Coach Armand Delacruz said. "We had a meeting and talked for about 20 minutes, how we had high expectations.

"For us, the layoff helped."

Hutt got healthy and scored four goals last week, including the final tally against Northern on a beautiful bicycle kick.

Tomorrow's game, however, will not affect the teams' playoff seedings. The postseason draw will be held earlier in the day. McDonough will be in the 2A South Region, while Westlake will be in 3A South.

Staff writer Alan Goldenbach contributed to this report.

Melissa Loeper has given La Plata some scoring punch. Above right, she battles Huntingtown's Kelsey Kempf during the Warriors' overtime win.

La Plata goalie Cari Toman stops a shot by Huntingtown's Kelly Kady on Thursday. Kady is part of a "Fab Five" of freshmen who have sparked the Hurricanes in just the school's second year.