When it comes to sizing up contenders for the field hockey season in Howard County, the "Big Three" are usually sure bets to set the pace.
One can always count on Centennial and Glenelg -- and in recent years, defending county champion Oakland Mills -- to lead the pack. This fall, however, could be the year an upstart or two foils that predictable scenario. Teams like Wilde Lake, Howard and Hammond, each of whom hovered around the .500 mark last fall, are returning a core of solid, experienced players and could be on the verge of a breakthrough.
The county has also seen the hiring of two promising new head coaches.
Jackie French, who assisted at Hammond for two years, has taken the job at Howard. Meanwhile at Mount Hebron, the Vikings are hoping to turn things around with Jeanette Ireland, a former nine-year assistant at Johns Hopkins. And Atholton shows signs of being more competitive under second-year coach Carol Ann Stevens.
"I think you're going to see a lot more balance in the county this year," said Glenelg coach Ginger Kincaid. "We've got more good coaching around the county, which is exciting. The overall level of hockey here is already good, and it's just going to get better."
Here is a look at each county team:
Coach Stevens insists this Raiders team will in no way resemble last year's group, which won just two games and struggled badly on offense, scoring a mere two goals the entire season.
The main cause for Stevens' optimism is senior link Cori Neubauer, who completed her second Olympic Development Camp stint and could be the county's most improved player. The increased scoring may well begin with her. Junior forward Gabrielle DesCoteau is also expected to score often.
"Cori could make quite a difference," Stevens said. "She can flick the ball with a real degree of accuracy, and she has that go-go-go attitude."
As Neubauer and the offense improves, Stevens hopes the Raiders defense also gels behind returning seniors Jennifer Leonard and Kristen Murphy.
Otherwise, Atholton needs newcoming halfbacks Liane Surbrook, Katie Walter and Joy Gilbert and first-year junior goalkeeper Amy Blackburn to mature quickly into a solid unit. Stevens said those newcomers probably could have played at the varsity level last year.
The Raiders won two of their last three games, and Stevens hopes they carry that momentum into a productive 1990.
"Coming off a season like last year, I don't want them to lose a tough first game, then get down on themselves," she said. "They're showing their strengths. Teams better look out for Atholton."
Losing seasons just don't happen to Gail Purcell-coached teams, and this year should be no different at Centennial, where Purcell begins her 14th season. But the Eagles may slip a bit.
Centennial will have a difficult time replacing All-County center halfback Kerry Carlson and offensive star Cecily Auvil. Still, the Eagles return six starters from last year's 8-4-1 team, and will blend in four promising newcomers.
"We lost lots of leadership and ability with Kerry. We're still looking for someone to take over that role," said Purcell, who needs just five victories to record career No. 100. "And we need lots of work in both circles."
The Eagles have lots of experience spread around the field, most notably in their defense. Juniors Laure Kaylor and Meghan Carr, All-County performers at sweeper and goalie, return. Senior links Anna Lee and Theresa Prebish are also back, as are senior forwards Beth Pressler and Megan McGowan, who will have a large say in how well the Eagles offense fares.
Purcell is also banking on four junior newcomers -- forwards Heather Bradburn and Heather Saunders and halfbacks Christine Roney and Jenna Cowles -- to help settle a team that may need a few games to establish itself. The Eagles dropped their opener to Anne Arundel County power Broadneck, 3-0.
"This is a team that can really put it together or fall apart. It all depends on their desire," Purcell said. "We always expect a better-than-average season, because these are better-than-average kids."
Here's a prediction that's never a surprise: The Gladiators will contend for the county championship. Coach Kincaid, entering her 14th year, may have lost three excellent players -- forwards Martha Cockrell and Susan Gerhardt and link Sarah Schulze -- to graduation, but Kincaid blends and nurtures talent from year to year with the best of them.
Glenelg returns eight starters from last year's team, which averaged more than two goals per game and won a regional championship with Cockrell leading the way with a league-leading 17 goals. The Gladiators will count on senior forward Marnie Cordisco to lead the offense this time. She should get plenty of help from senior Kate Brinker, one of the county's better links.
"I've got a lot of ability to score," said Kincaid, after Glenelg posted a 4-3 opening-game victory over Spalding. "I'm a little distressed with the other team's ability to score."