During Arundel's run to the Maryland 4A championship game, its Anne Arundel County rivals turned suddenly into ardent Wildcats supporters. To teams like Severna Park, Old Mill, Broadneck and others, Arundel's surprising playoff success validated a theory coaches had long harbored.

"We've got a pretty deep baseball league," Severna Park Coach Jim McCandless said. "Year in and year out, you're going to have a lot of teams from here that can be competitive at the state level."

Two Anne Arundel teams that barely finished above .500 in league play made the state semifinals. Southern, which once lost five consecutive county games, advanced to the 2A state semifinals; Arundel, which struggled all season with injuries and inconsistent hitting, advanced to the 4A state final.

Severna Park, the county's regular season champ, won the 3A state title, 9-0, over Wilde Lake.

"Playing in Anne Arundel toughened us up for the postseason," Southern Coach Manny Branco said. "We're more than prepared for our state competition."

Said Bernie Walter, Arundel's coach: "When you play in a league like ours, you get used to good, close games. That helps us."

Program On the Upswing

When Greg Fuller was hired to be H.D. Woodson's football coach prior to the 1999 season, the job came with a bonus: He could also coach the Northeast Washington school's baseball team. At the time, though, the school did not have a team.

In two seasons, Fuller had the Warriors in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game, a place they find themselves today for the third time in six years. The opponent once again will be Wilson, which has dominated its league like few other teams in the Washington area, winning the past 12 DCIAA titles.

H.D. Woodson had some success prior to Fuller's arrival, but had been without a team for three years because of the lack of a coach, according to Athletic Director Bob Headen. The team had uniforms -- the same ones it still wears -- but still does not have a field. Fuller said he sometimes uses the football field or tennis courts for practice.

Simply finding enough players remains a problem, Fuller said, though he hopes the arrival of the Washington Nationals will create more interest in baseball. Five of this season's players also played on the school's DCIAA runner-up football team, including its three key players, seniors Barry Scott Jr. and Napoleon Sullivan and sophomore Gabriel Prophet.

"Baseball is more of a mental and thinking man's game," Fuller said. "It doesn't take a lot of ability to play, but it does take the ability to know what to do. As opposed to football and basketball where your skill and ability can overtake certain situations."

H.D. Woodson (14-1) is coming off a 7-6 semifinal victory over School Without Walls in a game that was called after five innings because of a two-hour time limit. Wilson, meantime, has steamrolled its way back to the DCIAA title game. The Tigers (18-5) have won 80 consecutive league games and 170 of their past 171. All but one of their league games this season were called after five innings because of the 10-run mercy rule; only School Without Walls made it a full seven innings with the Tigers, losing 10-1.

Wilson has won its two playoff games by a combined 36-0 and senior Nick Morison today will try to become the third consecutive Tigers pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the title game.

"It's a challenge," Fuller said. "Wilson has always had a tough, solid program."

Answering the SMAC Talk

It had been two seasons since the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference won a softball state title and people were beginning to wonder: Had the SMAC lost its knack?

"Just being around some coaches on several committees," said Huntingtown Coach Mike Johnson, the Region 4 representative to the Maryland State Softball Committee, "they said that it was a down time for the conference. I feel we weren't getting the respect we deserve."

The league answered the doubters last weekend when Huntingtown (Class 3A) and Calvert (Class 2A) won state titles.

All-Met Player of the Year Megan Elliott heard the whispers and said it rankled her.

"That does," Elliott said. "Do they come out and watch our games? Do they know the potential we have?"

Now that the SMAC has two state champions -- for the first time since 1998 -- its other teams can take heart. There is a feeling the league has reasserted itself as one of the state's top leagues.

"I always tell the girls," Calvert Coach Frank Moore said, "that you're not going to see anything in the state tournament that you're not going to see in the SMAC."

Staff writer Alan Goldenbach contributed to this report.

Arundel's Mike Behrle gets the force on Quince Orchard's Nick Barkanic in state title game. The Wildcats lost, but they won fans in Anne Arundel County.