By unanimous acclamation of the eight high school coaches, Centennial ranks as the clear-cut choice to be the county's top boys soccer team this season.
If Eagles coach Bill Stara gave much credence to some of the glowing comments floating around about his team, he might start making room in the school's trophy case for 1991 county, regional and state soccer hardware.
Defending state Class 3A champion Oakland Mills coach Don Shea described Centennial as "heads above the rest."
Reg Hahne, coach of defending state Class 2A champion Atholton, described Centennial as "tops by far."
But Shea is a veteran coach who knows that titles are won and lost on the field, not in pre-season talk, and that opposing coaches sometimes try to over-praise to make other teams overconfident.
Stara admits his team will be extremely competitive. But onlywith reluctance is he willing to take on the burden of being proclaimed the early favorite.
"I think we're No. 1 by default because wehave the most lettermen back," Stara said. The Eagles return a loftytotal of 14 players, but in that department they are actually secondto Glenelg, which returns 16.
Stara predicts that his team will not win by big scores.
"We're not senior-heavy like Oakland Mills was last year," he said. "Overall, we're just a little-bit-above-average team."
Stara may have good reason to talk conservatively this early.
Oakland Mills returns 13 lettermen from a 14-2 season. One is Lopaka Trout, who scored 12 goals.
Atholton returns 10 lettermenfrom a 12-3-1 season, including first-team all-county striker Tony Dedmond, who produced 15 goals and 11 assists.
Howard, which has lost just one game in two years for the best record in the metro area, returns 10, including the always-dangerous junior midfielder Jason Yancey.
Wilde Lake returns nine and has three talented transfers forits best team since it won four straight state titles in the early 1980s.
The 'Cats have two players with U.S. Olympic Development Program national team experience -- senior forward Hamisi Amani-Dove andsenior midfielder Matt Nesbitt.
Hammond returns 12 lettermen, including second-team All-County fullback Brian Thierrin, from a team that won only three games. But the Bears tied three and lost twice in overtime.
Glenelg returns 16 players from its best team ever, including its ODP state-team goalie, Russell Payne.
And Mount Hebron, last year's forgotten team that won three games including an upset of Hammond, returns 10 lettermen for the county's only first-year coach,Ron Martin.
All of this means there will be no easy games in the county this year. Every team will be respectable or better. And any of them could make the playoffs.
This year's re-classification of state public high schools by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association has led to three noteworthy changes in the playoff structure.
Oakland Mills has dropped from Class 3A to 2A. Atholtonhas moved up from 2A to 3A. And Wilde Lake has dropped from 2A to 1A. Classifications are determined by enrollment.
The other county schools and their classifications are: Centennial (3A), Glenelg (2A), Howard (3A), Hammond (2A), and Mount Hebron (2A).
County teams wontwo of the four state titles last year. This year they have a good chance to win three.
Here's a closer look at each team in the most competitive soccer league in the state:
The talent pool at Atholton grows richer year-by-year.
This season coach Reg Hahne even had to cut a player who was on last year's state championship squad, which compiled Atholton's best-ever record of 12-3-1.
"We have a lot of quality players," Hahne said. "And hopefully we're starting a tradition of winning. Now that we've won a state title, we know what we need to do to repeat. And repeating would be wonderful."
The main monkey wrench in Atholton's plan seems to be its new classification. The Raiders have moved into the tougher 3A class that includesCentennial.
Atholton also faces the tough challenge of a significantly upgraded schedule that includes respected teams from Bethesda/Chevy Chase, Kennedy and Loyola.
"It was time now to upgrade the schedule because that's the only way to improve," Hahne said.
The Raiders defeated highly touted Bowie in a scrimmage this year, and thatwin helps build confidence that this will be another outstanding season for Atholton.
The Eagles compiled a 22-4-2 record the past two years without ever winning a county, regional or state title.
Now they are expected to take it all, despite losing eight starters to graduation.
Senior midfielder Josh Baer is a second-teamall-county player and team captain. The speedy state-team player wasinvited to ODP regional camp but won't hear if he made that team until December.
Tod Downen is a flashy, 6-foot-2 senior midfielder who covers a lot of ground. He's the closest thing the Eagles have to asuperstar, and was a first-team All-County pick last year when he had eight goals and four assists.