The county girls soccer season shapes up as one of the most competitive in recent years.
At least five teams -- Centennial, Hammond, Howard, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake -- share a legitimate hope of winning the county title and going on to possible state titles.
But Mount Hebron and Glenelg, where soccer enthusiasm is soaring, are also stronger and nearly ready to challenge the more established programs.
The county girls program is strong compared to other counties -- so strong, in fact, that virtually every coach acknowledged scheduling troubles.
"We only won two games last year, but as soon as people find out you are from Howard County, they don't want to play you," said Mount Hebron coach George Myers.
As a result, several county schools had to schedule each other to fill out their non-league schedules.
Hammond, led by forward Samantha Andersch and sweeper Jackie Rieschick, both All-County players, is the Class 2A defending state champion. But the Bears compiled only a 3-3-1 record in the county last year, an indication of just how tough the league competition is.
Oakland Mills, four-time defending county champ, fields another strong team, led by midfielder Mia Dammen and forward Stephanie Magro, both first-team All-County players. But the Scorpions may have slipped a notch, if the team's 2-0 loss to Howard on opening day is any indication.
Centennial, led by All-County midfielder Meg Caro and All-County goalie Jenny Kling, fashioned a surprisingly strong 12-2 season last year with a young group of players, most of whom are back.
Howard is solid, and returning are sensational All-County goalie Krista Fulton, along with All-County midfielder Kristi Greer.
Wilde Lake returns one of the best forwards ever in the county, junior Renita Young, who missed last year because of an injury. As a freshman, Young scored 20 goals and was All-Met.
Here's a closer look at all eight county teams:
The Raiders will field a young team, with only one senior.
Coach Shirley Cohee thinks the defense will be strong with junior sweeper Alex Pastine and junior stopper Jennifer Brock.
The Raiders also have a good goalie -- senior Meredith Polsky.
In two scrimmages so far, the team has scored only one goal, and offense remains a question mark as the Raiders near their opener Friday at Hammond.
Sophomore forward Alison Valentino, the team's second-leading scorer last year, is back. And junior midfielder Vanessa Clack has a good foot at center midfield.
A transfer from Notre Dame Prep, Meara Strain, has good skills and also should help the midfield.
The Raiders won only four games and failed to make the playoffs last year, a disappointment for coach Cohee.
"This is a cohesive group that works hard, and I think our starting players will be competitive, but we don't have a lot of depth," Cohee said.
Several injuries prompted her to bring up two players from the junior varsity on Monday.
"We're looking to win more games than last year," Cohee said.
Last year, a young Eagles team with only seven seniors stunned everyone by winning 12 games. This year, they are even younger, with just three seniors.
But midfielder Meg Caro and goalie Jenny Kling, both seniors, are two of the best players in the county.
Centennial's defense proved much tougher than expected last year. Junior Corina Riismandel at stopper and junior sweeper Rebecca Joeckel were two reasons the Eagles were so stingy. Fullback Meaghan Hughes also has improved greatly.
The Eagles have speed on their front line with sophomore forwards Vicki Brunt and Natalie Rich.
Centennial's only losses last year were both to Oakland Mills, a situation they'll be looking to correct.
"If we mature and stay injury-free, our defense will be tough and offensively we'll be strong," coach Ray Mayrovitz said.
Liberty, South River and Arundel dropped Centennial this year, and the Eagles picked up McDonogh and Westminster, with a fifth non-league game scheduled against Atholton.
"I think this will be the best year ever for county soccer, so I'd be happy if we do as well as last year," Mayrovitz said.
Last year was the best-ever for girls soccer at Glenelg. The team won four games and made the playoffs.
Every year Glenelg inches closer to teams like Oakland Mills and Howard.
The Gladiators are probably still one or two years away from making the jump to being able to beat those teams.
"We're getting better players," coach Dean Sheridan said. "These are the most skilled freshmen we've ever had." A total of 22 freshmen came out for the team.
One of those freshmen, Christina Flowers, is playing varsity. She's a member of a talented club team, the '76 Chargers.
Sheridan has 10 returning players, including junior forward Alex Sellner.
Senior Petra Kantelinen, an exchange student from Sweden, has good skills and figures to help.
But Sheridan thinks the county season may look like last year when the team won just once.
"I would like to see us more competitive out of county," Sheridan said.