North Carroll looks like the team to beat in county girls basketball this year.
The Panthers have six players -- including two starters -- back from a 14-9 team that tied for second in the county, and the newcomers move up from a 20-0 junior varsity juggernaut that was coached by Greg Knill, the new varsity mentor.
But Westminster could lay claim to the preseason favorite's mantle, too.
Yes, the Owls lost the county's leading scorer, Toyah Houck, to graduation. But Stephanie Morningstar was sixth in the county in scoring as a sophomore and Lisa Brown was eighth, giving the Owls the best perimeter tandem in the county. And, their newcomers move up from a 17-2 jayvee team that lost only to North Carroll.
And those two should be in the chase for the Central Maryland Conference crown, now that two-time state champion Thomas Johnson has lost most of its stars to graduation. Frederick, which has all but two players back from last year's 12-11 team, has been tagged by several Carroll coaches as the CMC team to watch.
In the Monocacy Valley Athletic League, Middletown, Smithsburg, Walkersville and Williamsport appear to have plenty of talent returning, with Catoctin and Boonsboro also likely to finish in the upper echelon of the league.
Here is a look at the county teams:
F. SCOTT KEY EAGLES
With a team high on enthusiasm and short on experience, it could be a very interesting season for Coach Brian Hollingsworth's Eagles.
The Eagles have only four seniors with varsity experience from last year's 4-19 team.
"We are very young in age and experience. The team has shown a lot of enthusiasm and just needs to play together for a while and gel," said the fourth-year coach.
He will look to guards Cathy Coale, Celena Welty and Robin Liller, along with forward Shelly Koons, to provide senior leadership on the floor.
Another concern for Hollingsworth is his team's lack of size, which he hopes can be neutralized with hustle.
"I'm expecting good things. We have a small team that has shown great hustle, and we are looking to challenge everybody," Hollingsworth said.
After a 3-19 season a year ago, first-year coach Tom Delise has his young team going back to basics at the start of the season.
"We're working hard on fundamentals, emphasizing defense and working the ball inside offensively. We'll add to that as the year goes on," Delise said.
With just two seniors and two juniors returning from last year's squad, Delise is looking at this season as the front end of a two-year plan.
"We have a good bunch of kids who are working very hard and have a tremendous desire to improve," he added.
The Lions will look to a set offense early in the season and hope to open it up a bit more as the season progresses.
Seniors Cindy Leeds (guard) and Lisa Pauley (forward), and juniors Kelly Foreman (forward) and Julie Cox (guard/forward) are the top returnees.
NORTH CARROLL PANTHERS
After a solid 14-9 season a year ago, the Panthers are looking to take things a step higher with a solid mix of returning players and some newcomers coming up from a 20-0 junior varsity team.
Former junior varsity coach Greg Knill will incorporate a new system which will feature an aggressive defense with a running, up-tempo offense.
Junior guard Vicki Jackson will run the offense and look to senior forward Lisa Garland to provide most of the points inside. The difference this year will be the added depth to support the top returnees.
"I can easily go 10 deep," Knill said, citing his team's strong bench.
"Lisa Garland will provide a lot of the scoring and we have people around her to complement her."
Also returning for the Panthers this season are seniors Robin Martin (forward) and Stacey Kent (forward/guard) along with juniors Kim Piccione (guard) and Jenny Cooper (center).
One concern Knill does have is his team's lack of size.
"We're not real big, which may hurt. We're concentrating on having fun, working hard and taking it from there," he said.
SOUTH CARROLL CAVALIERS
Gone is Danette Johnson, the third-leading scorer in the county last year but, more importantly, a defensive force inside and a center who played with the hustle of a point guard.
Even with Johnson, the Cavs were hardly a juggernaut on offense (They only broke the 50-point barrier in two games), and points likely will be even harder to come by this year. Three seniors are expected to play key roles this year.
Forwards Valee Baker and Anne Keefer and guard Kelly Clutter all are back for their third season at varsity.
As usual, defense will be the Cavs' trademark (Their opponents only cracked the 50-point barrier once, and several teams were held to under 30 points), but they won't have Johnson as the disruptive force inside.
Westminster has some experience, some height, lots of quickness, a deep bench and newcomers up from a solid junior varsity team. If North Carroll wasn't similarly blessed, the Owls would be favorites in the county.