When Westlake (Waldorf) won the Class 3A football state title last year, the Wolverines ended a nearly 20-year trend, and at the same time might have put the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference on an entirely new path.
Before Westlake's title, the previous SMAC state champion was Calvert (Owings) in 2000. Before that it was McDonough (Pomfret) in 1990.
Now, entering 2009, the SMAC is no longer considered a conference of playoff contenders but rather a conference of potential state champions.
Westlake begins the season as the Class 3A favorite. McDonough, with 17 returning starters, projects among the state title favorites in Class 2A. In addition, North Point (Waldorf) figures to be a Class 4A East region title contender. Class 2A Patuxent (Lusby) Class 3A Huntingtown and Class 3A Lackey (Indian Head) all should be region title challengers.
Westlake returns 13 starters from last year's 12-2 team. Although consensus all-state running back Devon Smith has taken his game to Penn State, the Wolverines appear to have capable replacements. Senior running back Antwoine Reese will be the key offensive threat. Last year he rushed for 611 yards and 100 carries. Senior Kendall Jefferson will share the carries with Reese. Jefferson, a top combine tester, rushed for 320 yards last season on 70 carries.
Chris Istvan, a junior, returns as the team's starting quarterback. His primary role last year was handing the ball to Smith, but the sophomore managed to produce a 972-yard passing season. Westlake, which runs the wing-T, likes to use its running backs even on passing plays; however, the team has deep threat Courtney Jarvis, a senior who averaged nearly 20 yards a catch last year.
The strength of this year's Westlake team is on defense with eight returning starters. Senior linebacker Marcus Anderson had 68 tackles last season. Senior defensive end Josh Alexander, junior linebacker Donzel Peace and senior linemen Anthony Arcell and Sean Garland each had more than 30 tackles last season.
SMAC coaches expect North Point, a new school, to be the primary challenger to Westlake, but coach Ken Lane is not so sure. North Point graduated 40 football players in the school's first graduating class this spring.
The reason for North Point's high expectations hinge upon star running back Arlando Scott, who was an all-state small school first-team running back after netting more than 1,600 yards last season. Scott, a senior, has the good fortune of running behind standout lineman Nico Washington, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound senior. On the defensive side, junior linebacker Conner Crowell is receiving major college interest. He was Maryland's top tester at the Baltimore Nike Combine this past spring.
McDonough is only three years removed from a Class 2A state final appearance, and the Rams could be heading back to that point in 2009. Senior wideouts Devante Stamps and Javarrus King are receiving NCAA Division I college interest. Senior Derrick Joseph should be the team's top rusher. McDonough returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense from a team that went 6-4 in Luke Etherington's first season as head coach.
Patuxent has been a perennial playoff team this decade, and with nine returning starters from last year's 8-3 squad, coach Steve Crounse is expecting another postseason run in 2009. Francis Baker and Marquez Stewart, a pair of senior linebackers, were small school all-state honorable mention selections last year. Senior Zach Hummer, at 6-3, 275, is attracting major college interest. Another key returnee will be junior quarterback Ed Masssengill, who started as a sophomore.
Lackey had a trio of NCAA Division I defensive backs last year who pretty much steered the squad to the Class 3A South region final, where it lost to Westlake. The Chargers return only two offensive and three defensive starters. However, one key returner will be senior running back/linebacker Herman Bowman. He was the team's top underclass rusher and tackler last season.
Huntingtown is coached by Jerry Franks, one of the state's most respected coaches. With six offensive and seven defensive starters returning from a 9-2 team, the Hurricanes figure to be the SMAC front-runner in 2009. Greg Goodwin returns after rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a junior last year. Senior receiver Conor Stueckler is back after a 25-catch performance in 2008.
Calvert, which won a state title under Franks in 2000, appears to be on the rebound after several sub-.500 seasons. The Cavaliers bring back 10 starters highlighted by senior linebacker Zach Johnson.
Northern Calvert ended its 2006 season with a loss to Patuxent, and since that time has won only seven games. The Patriots were a perennial playoff team during the early 2000s, once stringing together 30 wins during a four-year period.
La Plata, like Northern Calvert, was once a SMAC front-runner but has fallen to the middle of the pack in recent years. The Warriors graduated nine key players from last year's three-win season and lost their running back, who transferred to another school.
Leonardtown has not won more than three games in a season since 1997, and it appears the Raiders will be in for more struggles in 2009. Great Mills, coming off an 0-10 season, has one of the league's top linebackers in Derrick Petett.
The SMAC was last considered a power conference nearly 20 years ago when the league, led by McDonough's three state titles, combined for four state champions, one runner-up, six semifinalists and six quarterfinalists between 1980 and 1991. Since that time, population growth in the counties that comprise the SMAC schools resulted in the opening of four new high schools, thus spreading the talent around the 13-team conference. Westlake's title in 2008 may send a signal to the rest of Maryland that the SMAC is back.
Sheldon Shealer has covered Maryland high school football for more than 20 years. He can be reached at Sheldon.Shealer@espn.com .