Senior midfielder Grayson Schmelzer helped Atholton win the Maryland 2A boys' soccer championship last season, but he still has something to prove.

The Raiders graduated four all-county seniors from last year's team, and Schmelzer wants to show that Atholton can win another state title without them.

"I told our defenders, 'You guys need to prove to them that they weren't all that they thought they were,' " Schmelzer said. "And they just started to play."

Schmelzer delivered that pep talk after a 2-1 loss to Mount Hebron on Oct. 1. In six games against county opponents since, Atholton is undefeated and has not allowed a goal.

The Raiders were 9-3-1 overall and 7-1-1 in the county -- with a five-game shutout streak -- when they played Oakland Mills on Tuesday night in their regular season finale. The game ended too late for this edition.

After the loss to Mount Hebron dropped them to 3-2-1, the Raiders emphasized playing well in each game from start to finish, Schmelzer said. That focus has resulted in better play early in games.

"It took us too long to start playing," Schmelzer said. "I told [the team], 'We have to play the whole 80 minutes. We can't just play once we get scored on.' "

Now, with the 2A South Region tournament set to begin tomorrow, Schmelzer and Coach Roch DeFrances agree Atholton is in a good position to make another successful run. The team's defensive play has been strong lately, but the offense is also doing its part.

"We just control the ball," DeFrances said. "We don't give it up that much. I say that because our keeper isn't getting many saves. They're not getting that many shots. Our keeper doesn't touch the ball.

"Most of the kids have been here before. We have a lot of returners, and they pass the ball really, really well. It's not unusual to see them string together five to 10 passes before they take it down and get a shot on goal."

Schmelzer entered the week tied with junior forward John Beltran for the team lead with eight goals. At the beginning of the season, DeFrances hoped Schmelzer would be the catalyst for the offense, and he has done so.

"He is exactly what I expected," DeFrances said. "He is by far the best midfielder in the state right now. He really distributes well."

Beltran has unexpectedly emerged as a key offensive threat, DeFrances said. "John is just a steady kid," DeFrances said. "He's surprising me with his ability to score and be part of the offense."

Said Schmelzer: "When I look up, he's pretty much the first person I want to pass the ball to. He and I just have this thing going on the field. It's just working well."

Atholton's strong record this season means that the Raiders will probably play most of their regional tournament games at home. That should come as a nice change for a team that played mostly on the road en route to last year's crown. Regardless of the venue, however, DeFrances believes his team can repeat if it continues to play the way it has recently.

"Like I keep telling the kids," DeFrances said, "I don't want to do anything differently."