Parity is the byword for area lacrosse this year.
The formidable members of the Maryland Scholastic Association Conference play in a world of their own, but who will rule the MSA itself is another matter.
At least six of the eight teams have legitimate shots at the title. Yet, only two from each division will make the playoffs.
Defending champion Loyola will be tested in Division I by St. Mary's (led by attackman Rob Chomo) and dark horse Gilman. Division II, the strongest overall, shapes up as a race between Boys' Latin (and player of the year candidate, defenseman Stan Ross), Calvert Hall, St. Paul's and Severn.
Poly returns leading scorer Albert Tyler in its bid to unseat defending B Conference champion Park. John Carroll's defense is intact as the Patriots challenge BB Conference winner McDonogh and Friends.
MSA C champion Forest Park has seven starters, including league leading scorer and C. Markland Kelly Award-winning midfielder Obie Barnes Jr.
Defending state 4A champion Dulaney can weather the loss of Sean Heffernan and repeat against the survivor of a five-team battle in Anne Arundel. However, Dulaney may not be the best team back home in Baltimore County.
Class 2A Towson has what veteran coach Randy Dase is calling his best team in years. The Generals, who do not play Dulaney, figure to improve on last year's state quarter-final finish.
The best of Howard County should be Howard (with Division I-caliber defenseman Joe Wilson) and Mount Hebron (led by Virginia-bound midfielder Mike McQuaid).
In Harford County, defending state 1A-2A champion North Harford has lost its talented attack but returns virtually everything else. Carroll County, with a slight drop in overall talent, still has South Carroll and the county's third-leading scorer in attackman Kyle Blough.
1. LOYOLA: The Dons (11-2, 8-2) begin defense of their title minus 12 of last year's top 16 players. But this is a program that traditionally finds the ways and means, winning 86 of 100 games in coach Joe McFadden's seven seasons.
And, "It's not that we don't have returning players. We graduated 18, but 20 are back," McFadden said. His decision to retain a large number of players last year is reaping dividends as the units meld rapidly.
The defense lost two-time All-American Craig Ronald "but is actually a little stronger all around," McFadden said, with seniors Dan Radebaugh, Chris Dardozzi and Shaun McKenzie to back veteran Chris Ginter.
Injuries and illness have kept the midfield from truly stabilizing, but seniors Chris Farmer, Brian Riehl, Chris Rimorin and C. C. Langator will join veterans Mike Vaughan (11g, 6a) and Brad Hoag (11-2) to form what McFadden thinks will be two capable units.
Returning fifth attackman Mike Boyle is teamed with David Evans (13-4), Mike Gately and Billy Evans. Junior keeper Jason Johnson has looked capable of succeeding his graduated brother, Tim, as Loyola reloads.
2. BOYS' LATIN: The veteran Lakers (9-6, 4-6) are an early favorite to win Division II and then supplant Loyola as league champion. Coach Bob Shriver has players back at every position, with the team's strength evenly distributed among attack, midfield and defense.
Senior attackman Kevin Lutz (42-7), a tall, strong left-hander, is one of the league's best. Mark LaVerghetta, Kevin Bryan, Gene Lower and Sam Cefalu all saw plenty of playing time last year.
The midfield has graduated Derek Radebaugh and Trent Carter, but Chris McGhay and three other top performers return. The defense has a first-team All-Metro player in Ross -- an imposing 6-5 and 210 pounds -- Matt Ryan and five others who will all see playing time. Junior goalie Steve Bassford started better than 50 percent of last year's games.
"Experience and size are our biggest pluses," said Shriver, who is starting his 12th season. "It's one of our smallest in terms of numbers , but it has character and good balance."
3. CALVERT HALL: The Cardinals (6-6, 5-5) are loaded with veterans of up to three years prior varsity experience. Two, talented attackman Sean Burke returns to the program after a year at Towson Catholic.
The combination of Burke and faceoff artist Tony Nugent may give Calvert Hall an offense to complement one of the league's stingiest defenses.
"I'm more of a defense-oriented coach, and last year only one team [Loyola] scored in double figures on us," coach Mike Thomas said. "This year, I'm looking for more of a balance. We should be strong in faceoffs and have the ball more."
Nugent, who is the MSA's premier faceoff specialist now that Severn's Ryan Wade is at North Carolina, should deliver the ball with regularity to a four-deep attack of Burke -- the team's second-leading scorer two years ago -- Greg Bordes, Sean Ryan and Peter Hilgartner.
The midfield boasts two fourth-year starters in Nugent -- one of the MSA's three fastest players -- and Tom Welsch. Brian Smith, Joe Fischer and Larry Rohleder and JV grad Omar Black round out what Thomas calls two very strong units.