With third-year quarterback Alex Halls among 16 starters back, the Churchill Bulldogs believe they have the experience to challenge Montgomery County's top teams this fall. Even the two juniors in the starting lineup -- all the otherstarters are seniors -- started last season, which is a particularly good thing for a team whose schedule is most difficult at the outset.

While some teams work their way into the season, Churchill should know if it is a postseason contender by the end of September, after playing Gaithersburg tonight, Quince Orchard on Sept. 10 and Seneca Valley on Sept. 23. Gaithersburg has advanced to the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, the second-longest active streak in Maryland.

"They've gone from believing they aren't supposed to win except [against traditionally weak opponents] to thinking they can go toe-to-toe with everybody," Churchill second-year coach Jamie Collins said of his team. "When I tell them, 'You can beat Gaithersburg,' they believe they can do it."

Creating that mind-set was Collins's goal. The Potomac school was a perennial power from the time Maryland created its postseason tournaments in 1974 through the mid-1990s. But since losing to Dunbar of Baltimore in overtime in the Maryland 3A championship game in 1995 -- after which longtime coach Fred Shepherd retired -- the Bulldogs fell from their perch.

After 27 years under Shepherd, Collins is the Potomac school's fourth coach in 10 seasons. Consecutive 7-3 records in 1999 and 2000 have been the only winning seasons since 1995. To current players, going 5-5 last year was an achievement. The next step is a winning record, making the playoffs for the first time since 1995 and reestablishing Churchill's program.

"It seems like the pieces are falling in place for us," said senior wide receiver Sekou Yansane, noting that several of Montgomery County's top teams from last season graduated key players. "The season is ours to take. We're kind of the underdogs, but that's not the way we feel. I guess we've got to beat some of the name schools to be at the top. It starts [tonight] against Gaithersburg."

Though Gaithersburg has only eight returning starters and a starting offensive line consisting of all juniors, a victory tonight still would be a milestone for Churchill, which has not beaten the Trojans since 1993. Gaithersburg is led by senior Andre Graham, who plays running back and linebacker, but Coach Kreg Kephart thinks his team has a way to go if it wants to continue its postseason streak.

"It's history," Kephart said. "All that matters is what you do now."

Directions: Take I-270 north to I-370, then go east on Frederick Avenue (Route 355) and then left. The school is about two miles on the left.

Travis Schroeder, Josh Rodman, Alex Halls, from left, Churchill finished 5-5 last season, but expect to contend for the county title this season. "The season is ours to take," WR Sekou Yansane said.