Atholton field hockey coach Carol Ann Stevens would rather avoid soft scheduling.
Take the Raiders' 3-2 loss Thursday to visiting Liberty High School. Liberty, a Carroll County power for several years under coach Courtney Vaughn, is poised for a run at a state title.
The Lions made it to the Class 3A semifinals last fall, dropped to 2A this year and are off to a best-ever, 5-0 start.
The Raiders,meanwhile, are trying to put hard times behind them. By beating Lackey (Charles County) last week, Atholton (1-2) equaled last season's victory total. Atholton's other loss came against Francis Scott Key (Carroll County), another legitimate 2A state playoff possibility.
"I did not pick light teams (to schedule)," said Stevens, the Raiders'fourth-year coach. "I could pick light teams, and our record would be better. But would we be better? No. I'm not calling this a rebuilding year. I'm calling this a move-forward year."
Atholton was outclassed for much of the day by the Lions, whose speed, excellent positioning and hard driving kept the Raiders at bay.
Still, Atholton might have taken a huge step forward Thursday had it not been for Lisa Yealdhall, the Lions' outstanding forward.
Yealdhall scored all three of Liberty's goals.
Her first goal came with 9:50 left in the opening half. The shot was one for the highlight reels.
Yealdhall took control of a loose ball near midfield, dribbled down
the leftside of the field to beat the defense, and just when it appeared theball was headed out of bounds to the left of the cage, Yealdhall slapped a one-handed shot across her body and past Atholton goalie Agatha Davis (nine saves).
She added two more goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half to give the Lions a 3-1 cushion. Liberty, which outshot the Raiders, 17-6, and never trailed, looked poised to rout the Raiders after that.
But Atholton refused to roll over. Instead, the Raiders hung on to make the game uncomfortably interesting for Liberty.
With 5:30 left, Stasia Skillman scored on a Raiders' penalty corner to trim the lead to 3-2. Atholton then earned three corner chances in the final three minutes.
The first opportunity endedwith a 10-yard shot by forward Gabrielle Descouteas that sailed highand wide to the left. The next two ended with shots by forward CareyLong that were stopped by center halfback Krista George.
Coach Vaughn blamed the second-half scare on several factors. Her starting sweeper, Kim Hoffmaster, sat out the game with a sprained ankle.
Vaughn also elected to substitute freely -- maybe too freely, she admitted -- following Yealdhall's third goal.
And Vaughn tipped her hat to the Raiders, whom she has never failed to beat.
"They (Atholton) are getting better and better. They've got some nice players," Vaughn said. "We used to think we could come in here and blow them away."
"My defense didn't have a very good game. They kept breaking down," Stevens said.
"They've showed me a lot more in practice. But the girls didn't give up."
Atholton showed toughness in the first half as well. After Yealdhall's fast-break goal got the Lions on the board, the Raiders responded quickly. Two minutes later, forward Nikki Auclair, who scored the goal in Atholton's 1-0 victory over Lackey, evened the score.
The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Raiders. After playing Fallston, a perennial Harford County contender, on Tuesday, the Raiders open their league schedule against the county's best. Friday, they travel to Centennial. Four days later, they go to Glenelg.