At this time last season, there was a certain novelty to Quince Orchard's berth in the playoffs. After reaching the postseason for the first time since 1993, that unfamiliar feeling and relative inexperience may have contributed to the No. 17 Cougars' one-and-done exit at the hands of Churchill.

But in amassing a 9-1 record this season, Quince Orchard has established itself as a legitimate state title contender. That alone ensures that the Cougars won't simply be happy to be in the postseason when they host Richard Montgomery in the opening round of the 4A West Region playoffs tomorrow.

"It's different this year in the fact that this program still has only been to one playoff game in the four years I've been associated with it," Coach Dave Mencarini said. "Last year we got in and got out. It was a one-week stay. We don't want to be in it for one week. We want to be in it for four more weeks.

"One of the things we're trying to impress upon the kids right now is that we're only guaranteed one game. The teams that are left in the playoffs are there for a reason. It's not going to be easy."

The Cougars did not step on the brakes during the final stretch of the season, despite the fact that they had already secured a playoff spot with two games left. Over its final five games, Quince Orchard allowed a combined 21 points. In their season-ending 46-7 win over Churchill on Friday, the Cougars forced six turnovers and quarterback Pepper Coe threw five touchdowns.

"We had to win on Friday because we're trying to raise the expectations around here," Mencarini said. "Last year we finished 8-2 and our season ended with a loss to Churchill. Regardless of whatever our record was or whatever happened going into the season, our kids knew Churchill was going to be a big game."

The winner of tomorrow's game will play the winner of No. 1 Damascus and Gaithersburg in the regional final. The Rockets (7-3), like Quince Orchard, have come a long way in only a few seasons. After finishing 1-9 in 2003, they reached the playoffs last season and then bounced back from a 2-2 start this year to clinch a playoff berth with a 22-21 win at Northwest on Friday.

"All of us seniors remember what it was like to be on that team two years ago," Rockets running back Kevon Calhoun said.

Calhoun rushed for 161 yards against Northwest and was a major reason for the Rockets' continued success after losing All-Met Steven Weedon to graduation. For the season, he has 1,133 yards on 148 carries.

"The thing that really scares you is they can take a play that you have defended perfectly, but Calhoun or any skill guy that has the ball in his hands can take it 80 yards for a touchdown," Mencarini said.

In the 4A North Region, Sherwood (9-1) hosts Parkville (9-1) of Baltimore County tomorrow. The No. 9 Warriors have rolled into the playoffs, scoring 40 or more points in four of their last five games. Quarterback Deontay Twyman threw four touchdowns in a season-ending win over Gaithersburg on Friday.

"We're clearly getting better," said Sherwood Coach Al Thomas, whose team is hosting its first ever playoff game. "One of the reasons of course is that we have played 10 games. On offense there's a lot of motioning and we're showing a lot of different looks that can get confusing. Defensively, we're a whole lot better than last year."

Meanwhile, No. 11 Seneca Valley (9-1) hosts No. 10 Urbana (9-1) in the 3A West Region semifinals. The Screamin' Eagles' only loss this season came without running back Shawn Perry in the lineup. Since returning from an elbow injury on Oct. 21, Perry has rushed for 711 yards in five games.

In the 1A South Region, Poolesville (9-1) begins its quest for its first state title when it hosts Forest Park (5-5) tomorrow. Poolesville was undefeated last season before losing to Dunbar (Balt.) in the 1A South final.

Richard Montgomery Coach Mike Bonavia, left, and senior running back Kevon Calhoun celebrate a playoff-clinching win over Northwest on Friday. The Rockets will have their hands full tonight against Jewison Hurtault and 17th-ranked Quince Orchard. "It's not going to be easy," Cougars Coach Dave Mencarini said.