Chuck Struhar, whose Glenelg High School softball team sneaked up onthe county last year before running away with a league title and a perfect county record, would like the Gladiators to assume the same lightly regarded status this spring.
That won't be possible.
The Gladiators, who return six starters from the 20-2 team that made it to last year's Class 2A Region I title game, are clearly the team to beat -- especially after Centennial lost star junior pitcher Jodi Meitl for the season to injuries sustained in a March 1 automobile accident.
Centennial still figures to give Glenelg a strong run.The Eagles return four starters from last year's 17-4 team, including senior pitcher Lindy Mellendick, who did a fine job as the Eagles' No. 2 hurler last year.
The rest of the county pales in comparison, but Hammond, Howard and Atholton have the pieces to mount a credible challenge to Glenelg and Centennial.
Hammond returns a core of promising starters led by pitcher Jen Thomas, a great hitter who is the key to the Bears. Howard, which started five freshmen last year andproduced a decent 7-10 season, returns eight starters. Atholton alsoreturns eight starters but will depend heavily on junior pitcher AmyLorditch, who was converted from the outfield and rarely pitched last year.
The remaining three programs -- Oakland Mills, Mount Hebron and Wilde Lake -- are in various rebuilding stages.
Here's a closer look at the county teams:
The Raiders lost five seniors to graduation, most notably All-County first baseman Samantha Wackerly (.444, 17 RBI). But Atholton coach Dave Vitagliano, who has eight returning starters from last year's 7-13 team, figures the Raiders will score their share of runs.
Three of those returning -- seniorthird baseman Amy Shellenberger (.349 last year), junior shortstop Julie Ruprecht (.556 on-base average) and senior catcher Kerri Hibbard(.298, 16 steals) form the heart of the batting order. Each is also outstanding on defense, especially Hibbard, who threw out 21 base runners last spring.
"We're a better hitting team and a better defensive team than last year," said Vitagliano, whose Raiders are off to an 0-2 start. "We've made one mental mistake in two scrimmages and twogames. We've also got more overall talent than last year. There's not a kid on our roster I'd be afraid to start."
For Atholton to improve, junior pitcher Amy Lorditch must produce a good season, and theRaiders must give her a hand. Lorditch, who played first base and outfield while pitching sparingly behind now-graduated Lori Fineman, doesn't throw hard enough to be a strikeout pitcher. But she has shown decent command of the strike zone so far. She has also shown enough pop in her bat for Vitagliano to install her as the cleanup hitter.
Shepherd, senior Sherri Carl -- a first-time player who will start in center field -- and returning senior right fielder Suzanne Sealing round out the starting outfield. Senior second baseman Stacey Worden and junior first baseman Liz White round out the starting infield.
On most teams, the loss of junior pitching sensation JodiMeitl would be considered devastating. And the Eagles will certainlyfeel the effects of losing a pitcher with a combined 28-4 record and0.50 ERA in two seasons.
But Centennial isn't hopeless by any stretch. For starters, the Eagles have senior Lindy Mellendick, who rescued Centennial last year when Meitl's season was delayed several weeks by mononucleosis. Mellendick doesn't throw as well as Meitl, but she did go 6-2 with a 2.40 ERA.
"We're very lucky to have someone else to pitch for us. A lot of teams don't have that kind of depth," Coach Dale Huting said.
The Eagles have three more returning starters who could carry them. Senior center fielder Julie Parham is a solidall-around player. All-County junior right fielder Becky Joeckel hit.435 last year and has a super arm. Sophomore shortstop Kelli Butlerbrings good range and a strong arm to her position and is coming offa .383 season at the plate.
Centennial will look to younger, moreinexperienced players from there. Sophomore catcher Kari Chichester returns, but is a starter for the first time. Senior third baseman Lisa Taneyhill is an excellent athlete but a first-time varsity player.Junior first baseman Rebecca Vanisko moves up from the junior varsity.
"For the most part, the kids have adjusted to it (the loss of Meitl)," Huting said. "We eased into the season, which is one of the reasons we're still not sure about positions. We need to play some games and put the team together."
In the past, under Huting, the Eagles typically relied on pitching and defense before hitting. They'll need more offense to contend for a league title.
The Gladiators have a promising new pitcher in converted third baseman Lisa Martin, and with so many other dependable parts firmly in place, Glenelgshould win its second straight county championship.