Sure, punter might be the most overlooked position in high school football. But when Westlake was forced to use its fourth-stringer two weeks ago at Patuxent, Wolverines Coach Dominic Zaccarelli faced a reality he never imagined.

"If you told me before the season that I'd be down to my fourth punter by now, I don't know what I'd say. Nobody even has four punters."

That's the least of Westlake's injury problems, but the Wolverines have plenty of company in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference. All four playoff teams -- Westlake, Lackey, McDonough and Thomas Stone -- have had to overcome significant injuries this season.

For some, like Westlake, it was sheer quantity, and with all it was quality -- all four teams lost their best player at one point this season. The one common bond between the SMAC's four playoff teams this season is that they overcame injuries in the sport where they are most prevalent.

For all the depth Westlake has, there is no replacing two Division I running backs such as Aaris Reed and Pha'Terrell Washington for even one game, much less the better part of the past month.

For a team without much depth such as Lackey, stars become even more critical. When players such as lineman J.B. Walton and defensive back/wide receiver Dante Page are sidelined, it becomes a question of not whether someone is able to step in, but rather, is there anyone to step in?

It was awfully daunting to a young and inexperienced Thomas Stone team to begin the season with its best and most experienced defensive player, senior linebacker Nekos Brown, on the sidelines for the first three weeks.

And given the way A.J. Wallace has played over the past month, one has to wonder how McDonough was able to split its first four games with its star running back hobbled with a leg injury.

"As a coach, it's kind of frustrating," Lackey's Scott Chadwick said, "because that's the one thing you don't have any control over."

All that a coach is left to do when a star player goes down is plug the holes and hope for the best. Given that most of the injured stars play on both sides of the ball, that means trying to find two or three players to fill the role of one.

For example, when Page was out with a wrist injury early in the season, Lackey needed a new starting wide receiver, a starting defensive back, and a kick and punt returner.

"It takes three or four guys to place a guy like him," Chadwick said. "And we don't have three or four guys lying around."

If those three or four guys can get on the field, they have to work in sync with the rest of a unit that has established a rapport since the start of training camp in August.

"Continuity is such a big thing," Zaccarelli said. "Our offensive line hasn't been the same the past six weeks."

Moreover, familiar faces make a player feel more comfortable. Consider the comfort Lackey quarterback Aaron Smith has knowing his blind side is being protected by Walton, one the nation's top offensive lineman recruits.

Now, consider Smith when he didn't have Walton for three weeks in the first half of the season. The numbers don't lie: In the first five games, Smith completed less than half of his passes for just three touchdowns and four interceptions.

In the season's second half, Smith has completed more than 60 percent of his passes, and he has thrown for 12 touchdowns and only one interception.

Over the first four games of the season, Wallace was recovering from a preseason quadriceps strain. He was hesitant, and, given McDonough's dependence upon him for production, so was the Rams' offense. Nobody could replace Wallace's output, and everybody was scared to try it without him. In those first four games, McDonough averaged just 20 points per game; Wallace scored just three touchdowns, and he gained just 94 yards per game.

But when the pain went away, Wallace became unstoppable. The Rams averaged 41 points over the final six games, and Wallace averaged 251 yards and four touchdowns per game.

"It's not even close," McDonough Coach Dave Bradshaw said after the second of Wallace's three 300-yard games the past four weeks.

If there was one way to benefit from injuries, Thomas Stone found it. The Cougars had their deepest team in years, which allowed them to frequently rotate players. But given that Brown's injury happened at the start of the season, it allowed Thomas Stone to give inexperienced players significant time in a more relaxed part of the season.

There is a big difference filling in for a Virginia Tech recruit in Week 2 as opposed to Week 10.

"I think we've had it the best out of all the teams because we had ours early in the season," Thomas Stone Coach Steve Lindsay said. "We had guys go out there and get more playing time than they would have gotten."

McDonough running back A.J. Wallace breaks into the end zone for a touchdown against Patuxent last month.

Lackey offensive lineman J.B. Walton was sidelined for three weeks in the season's first half. Without Walton by his side, quarterback Aaron Smith's on-field performance weakened.

Westlake's Pha'Terrell Washington looks to get away from Thomas Stone's Tony Proctor last season. Both teams have weathered injuries this season.