The most pressing question of Howard County's fourth high school girls lacrosse season is not who will contend for the league title, but whether any new challengers will emerge to make the league more interesting.
Mount Hebron, Centennial and Glenelg have become entrenched as contenders, and that will not change.
Hebron, despite losing half its starting lineup to graduation, looks like a good bet to reclaim the county title it lost to Centenniallast year. The Vikings, 20-1 against the league in three seasons, stand a good chance of going undefeated against the county for the third time since the program began.
Centennial suffered devastating graduation losses. Nine players departed, six of them All-County -- including Player of the Year Kerry Carlson. But the Eagles return three excellent starters and add a slew of players from their outstanding junior varsity. They'll be dangerous again before long.
Glenelg returns six starters from last year's 9-4 team, and the Gladiators won'tbe fazed by their 0-3 start, which has featured two overtime losses.Coach Ginger Kincaid will have her team in the thick of the title chase.
Will someone else finally dent the armor of the Big Three? Unlikely but possible.
Atholton has rebounded to win two straight non-league games under first-year coach Carol Ann Stevens, and the Raiders are building a promising future under a sound fundamentals teacher. Howard also inherits a talented new coach in Jackie French, who has a handful of three- and four-year varsity players.
Oakland Millsreturns six starters from last year's 9-3 team that made the playoffs, and Coach Chris Marsiglia has one of the league's top players in Rachel Smith. Hammond also looks ready to turn a corner of sorts with five starters back from last year's 3-9 team. Even Wilde Lake has shown some life early, after suffering through a 1-11 season last spring.
Here is a closer look at each county team:
The Raiders and first-year coach Carol Ann Stevens are putting last year's 2-10 season behind them. Two consecutive victories -- 13-5 over Pallottiand 13-8 over North Harford last week -- have done wonders for theirattitude.
Stevens thinks Atholton (2-2) can be competitive in thecounty this season, but with a team dominated by promising underclassmen, her eyes are more trained on the future.
"I'm almost outfitting a totally new squad," she said. "I've got one senior in my starting lineup, which looks very good for the next few years. I don't meanwe're writing off this year. Our overall skill level is better. I'vegot more of a base to build my team around, instead of one or two girls playing the game by themselves. I've got a core of good athletes."
The Raiders lost Gina Opatovsky and Laura Gilbert, the two talented attackmen to whom Stevens was referring, to graduation. But Marney Treese --the team's lone senior starter -- and newcomer sophomore Alison Valentino should fill in nicely on attack. Treese scored five goals in the North Harford victory. Valentino already has 10 goals.
More scoring help should come from junior returning starter JenniferBrock and junior newcomers Stasia Skillman and Ali Auclair, both up from the junior varsity. Auclair has scored six goals already. And junior Anne Klotsky is an excellent ball handler with the versatility ateam needs at the center position.
Defensively, Atholton is suspect, especially after losing junior returning wing starter Alex Pastine to a recurring knee cartilage problem. Junior returning starter Julie Gerhardt will play the point position for the first time, while junior newcomer Dana McGraw is much improved.
But the team's most pleasant surprise has been junior Kirsten Kruhm, a third-year starter in goal. She recorded an astounding 38 saves in an 11-5 loss to South Carroll.
On paper, the Eagles should be headed downwardafter losing six All-County players and nine starters to graduation.They are off to a 2-2 start and won't be able to match last year's 13-1 season, which included a perfect county record and their first league title.
The Eagles have had their problems. Their young, inexperienced defense has come up short in losses to Dulaney (12-11) and Fallston (13-11). They also lost junior goalie Laure Kaylor last week for the season due to a disciplinary matter. They aren't nearly as deep or as fast as last year.
But Centennial is far from dead. To begin with, the Eagles have three outstanding returning senior startersin attack wings Megan McGowan and Kirsten Sadler and center Beth Pressler. McGowan scored 38 goals and scooped 77 ground balls en route to an All-County season last year. Sadler and McGowan might put up those kinds of numbers this year, although McGowan has been battling a respiratory ailment.