Severna Park girls soccer coach Joyce Stefancik likes the view from the top. She's grown accustomed to it in recent years.
But will her vantage point be lowered this fall? The two-time defending state 4A-3A champions, unbeaten in their last 32 games, see more teams than ever with a realistic chance of bumping them from the pinnacle. One of the challengers, Old Mill, visits the Falcons tomorrow.
Patriots coach Bruce Sponsler says, "Don't let anyone fool you. Severna Park still is the team to beat."
Chesapeake coach Lin Sullivan adds, "So far, Severna Park looks unbeatable. But if someone does beat them, hopefully we're there to see it."
Can anyone knock off the Falcons this year? Oakland Mills came close Tuesday, losing 2-1 in overtime.
Meanwhile, a South River team loaded with experience and talent appears the elite of the small 3A-2A League.
The following is a glimpse at the public school entries.
4A League Severna Park lost one All-American, but welcomes back another. Unfortunately, she graduated in 1986.
Colleen Corwell, who had a record-setting career at the College of William and Mary, has returned to Severna Park as an assistant to Stefancik. If only she were eligible to help fill the shoes of the many talented players who have departed -- some of the finest athletes ever to play soccer in Maryland.
Halfbacks Betsy Elder (All-American) and Erika Mawhorr (All-Metro) have moved on to college. So, too, has All-County sweeper Gina Roberts, the stalwart of a defense that allowed only three goals last season.
"We lost a wealth of talent," Stefancik said. "They played a big part in contributing to the state championship."
The same is true of keeper Tami Riley and her twin sister, stopper Tina Riley. Both return this year, as does striker Betsy Anderson, among last year's top scorers in the county.
Of Tami Riley, Stefancik said, "I feel she's the best in the state. Just look at her stats."
Riley has permitted nine goals in the past two seasons, while recording 23 shutouts. Also back are Lisa and Michelle Cope -- a fullback and striker, respectively -- and sweeper Ellen Westcoat, who must replace Roberts.
The Falcons' roster contains four freshmen, including starting fullback Carrie Budzinski.
"The kids are just getting accustomed to things," she said. "It takes time to gel as a team."
At Broadneck, David Lord is taking the same wait-and-see approach. The Bruins are a "completely different team" after graduation took All-Metro selection Betsy Given, wing Suzanne Driver, midfielder Keri Lord and sweeper Paula Prisco, among others.
"We lost 12 seniors from last year," Lord said, "so we're real young."
Five starters return, including junior midfielder Ava Tasker, a striker last season who Lord considers "the best in the county," senior midfielder Meredith Huffines and junior All-County stopper Dawn Frederick.
Like Severna Park, the Bruins sport four freshmen, including striker Amy Adams, who is "one to watch."
All eyes will be on junior keeper Holly Mowry, who took over the position full time during the second half of the 1989 season.
"The kids have to grow up quickly," Lord said. "I'm not crying about not having a lot of talented players. We just can't go 15-16 deep. But it will be fun."
Old Mill's Sponsler begins his quest to return to the playoffs after a heart-breaking, 1-0 shootout loss to Franklin of Baltimore County in the 4A-3A Region II finals.
After opening against Severna Park tomorrow, the Patriots must confront another tough league rival, Chesapeake, on Tuesday.
"We start our season with five tough games in a row," Sponsler said. "By the fifth game, we'll know where we stand."
The fifth-year coach has been pleased with his team's preseason workouts, citing juniors Amy Drapolski (goalie), Jen Bostak (fullback), Amy Tolley (striker) and midfielder Terri Bogle as key players.
"I've been encouraged by our work habits, and our skills have been improving as well," he said.
Chesapeake is expected to be a force again, according to most coaches in the county 4A league. With senior midfield co-captains Julie Smith and Diane McBee returning, Sullivan hopes his squad will stop playing the role of bridesmaid.
"We've been considered in the 'best of the rest' category for years," he said. "But this year, I think we have the talent to play with everyone in the county."
Sullivan's optimism is heightened by the presence of right wing Becky Thiele and fullbacks Stacy Grokas, Allison Nathan and Diana Castle.
At North County, second-team All-County midfielder Martha Hill is one of 14 varsity veterans.
The Knights also have a proven winner in coach Marianne Shultz, who last season led her Brooklyn Park team to its best season in 12 years (8-4-1) and a 2A-1A playoff berth.
"I think we have the players who will make us competitive," she said. "Angela Farace was one of the leading scorers in the county last year, and (goalie) Lisa Garrison went to camp this summer to work on her game. We'll be a thorn in the side to a lot of teams."