Atholton's Jim Albert is in his 26th season as boys' basketball coach, but the first two weeks of practice last month were unlike any before. He had 60 players arrive for tryouts, but most of the varsity team's starting lineup was absent.

That was good news, though, for Albert and the school's athletic program. Three senior starters -- power forward Aras Vaitkus, shooting guard Matt Winger and small forward Dean Hart -- are also starters on the football team, which last month made its first postseason appearance in 20 years. So Albert had to wait for them to switch from cleats to high-top sneakers.

"The first week of practice all we did was work on fundamentals because we couldn't do much team stuff because some of the guys that were there were going to get cut," Albert said. "But I was happy for the accomplishments of the football team, it just set us back."

Three days after the football team lost to Potomac in the 2A South Region final and just six days before the basketball team opened the season Dec. 5 against Chopticon, Winger, Vaitkus and Hart were back on the court.

"We finally got to pick our team," Albert said. "But our guys still have to get in basketball shape. We might get off to a slow start."

Don't count on it, opposing coaches said. Many Howard County coaches believe Atholton and Long Reach are the top league teams entering the season.

"I think right now, you have to look at Atholton and Long Reach and then everybody else," said Mount Hebron Coach Mike Linsenmeyer. "Atholton was pretty good last year, and they got a lot of those guys back, and they have one of the best coaches in the county. They are going to be tough."

Seven of the top nine scorers in the county last season have graduated, and the Raiders may have the county's most talented backcourt, with junior point guard Steve Lombardozzi (7 points per game) and Winger (5.5 ppg), complementing the smooth-shooting Hart (5.5 ppg) and versatile Vaitkus (7.5 ppg). Senior center Chimba Ebinama, who is 6 foot 4, should provide an inside presence to compensate for the graduation of the team's two top scorers from last year.

"Getting off to a late start makes it tougher," said Vaitkus, a defensive end on the football team. "But hopefully what we did in football will rub off on the basketball team."

Atholton was one of the county's best basketball teams for most of last season, but it lost five of its final six games to finish 13-11. The Raiders learned from that experience and know they have to play more consistently to have a chance to win their first county title since 1998.

"We're tired of being the contender or the team everyone has to look out for," said Winger. "We want to be the one that wins the county title."

Atholton has posted three consecutive winning seasons since going a combined 10-58 from 1999 to 2002, when several talented players decided to enroll in River Hill's technology magnet program or were redistricted to another school. Between 1994 and 1998, the Raiders were the county's premier team, winning four county titles.

"There were some years that the changes in boundary lines really hurt us," Albert said. "But the last one a few years ago helped us."

If Atholton is going to get past Long Reach and senior forward Darryl Webb (14.5 ppg), Oakland Mills and junior forward David Pearman (8.8 ppg), and Howard and senior forward Chris Moore (16 ppg), it will need contributions from its entire lineup because it does not have an established go-to player.

"I don't think we'll have one guy who averages 20 points a game, but I could see three or four of us who average 10," Lombardozzi said. "I think with the talent we have, if we can stay strong, we're going to be a pretty tough team to beat."

Small forward Dean Hart, left, is one of three Atholton players who also was a starter on the football team.Steve Lombardozzi, right, averaged 7 points a game for Atholton last season.Deshawn Hopwood of Atholton fights with a Glen Burnie player for the ball.