Before the 2004 season started, Leonardtown girls' soccer coach Jennifer Henderson decided to make a subtle change that she hoped would improve her team's defensive performance. Instead of using an alignment that called for three defenders and a sweeper, the Raiders went to a "flat" system, which calls for all four defenders to play along the same line.

A little more than a year later, the adjustment has proven to be a major success. With a defense comprised of four returning starters (seniors Laura Norris, Colby Gehrig, Erin Fairgrieve and Diane Mattingly), Leonardtown has posted six shutouts in its first seven games. The latest example of the Raiders' defensive authority came in a 2-0 victory over defending Southern Maryland Athletic Conference champion Westlake on Tuesday.

"This year our defense is more experienced, and they're playing really well together as a unit," said Henderson, who guided the Raiders to the 2003 Maryland 3A championship. "We really haven't given many teams good looks" at the goal.

Against the Wolverines, Leonardtown (7-0, 5-0) continually pushed its defenders forward, denying time and space to Westlake's explosive forwards, Lauren Russell and Liz Striegel. The defense's ability to pressure the ball allowed the offense to string passes together and create quality scoring opportunities. The Leonardtown offense has been taking full advantage, outscoring opponents 23-2.

While the Raiders have clearly established themselves as the team to beat in the SMAC, they will face a bigger challenge in the playoffs, when they will compete as a member of the 4A East Region for the first time.

"I'm pleased with six shutouts in seven games, and you can't complain about that," Henderson said. "I just hope we can keep improving so we can show well once we get to the playoffs. We want to represent the SMAC well and make a name for ourselves."

Leonardtown's Emily Gehrig gets in front of Westlake's Michaela Fralen.