Will this finally be the year someone upsets the balance of field hockey power in Howard County?
On paper, it's hard to see that happening this fall. Centennial and Glenelg, with 15-year coaches Gail Purcell and Ginger Kincaid, have maintained a firm hold on hockey supremacy for much of the past decade.
Last year, the Eagles and Gladiators battled to a tie for the county title, finishing two games ahead of the nearest competitor. Both return teams that look to be a cut above the rest of the competition.
But hang on, fans of the underdog. This could be the year the armor reveals a noticeable chink.
Take Mount Hebron and Hammond, for instance. Each team went 4-3 against the county. Hammond returns an outstanding nucleus on offense, while Hebron, revived by first-year coach Jeanette Ireland last year, comes into the season with high expectations.
Oakland Mills, two years removed from an appearance in the 3A state title game, figures to erase last year's 5-7 disappointment under Coach Chris Marsiglia. Wilde Lake looks to move up from the middle of the pack under first-year coach Samuel Din.
Atholton and Howard, meanwhile, hope to get out of the league's cellar.
Here isa look at each team:
The Raiders' 1-9 record last year is somewhat misleading. Two victories were erased because Atholton inadvertently allowed an ineligible player to participate. In their actual losses, the Raiders were outscored only 19-14.
Third-year coach Carol Ann Stevens notes this with enthusiasm, because the Raidersreturn nine starters who have looked promising since practice openedfour weeks ago.
"I'm trying to keep it low-keyed, but people are going to be surprised by us this year," Stevens says. "Except for a new goalie, we're back everywhere else."
The defense looks like theteam's strong suit, especially if junior newcomer goalkeeper Agatha Davis' transition from junior varsity to varsity goes smoothly. She replaces Amy Blackburn, who moved out of state. Sweeper Joy Gilbert, center halfback Kristen Murphy -- a third-year player -- and halfback Katie Walter are all back and hope to make Davis' job easier.
Offensively, senior forward Gabrielle Descouteau is a third-year player who should lead the team in scoring. Seniors Eileen Fitzgerald (forward), Stasia Skillman (link) and Liane Surbrook (link) will offer support, but the wild card in the attack could be sophomore forward Nikki Auclair, who moves up from the junior varsity and assumes a starting position.
Color the Eagles contenders. No shock there, since Coach Purcell's program has been humming along efficiently for more than a decade.
Six starters return from last year's 9-3-1 team that tied Glenelg for the county championship, then lost in the first round of the playoffs. And it's a nucleus that will keep the Eagles in the county title and playoff hunts once again.
The defensecould be the league's toughest, with seniors Laure Kaylor (All-County sweeper) and Meghan Carr (goalie) back.
Carr averaged more than nine saves a game last year. Kaylor, an All-County selection last year, might be the league's best defender. Returning senior halfbacks Jenna Cowles and Christine Roney round out a strong unit.
"My defense, I'm not concerned about," Purcell says. "The inexperience on the attack is what worries me. Our problem has been finishing on offense."
The Saunders sisters, Heather and Amber, will dictate largely howthe offense produces. Heather scored three goals last year. Senior Heather Blackburn, another returning starter, also will have to assumemore of a scoring role.
Centennial's offense could receive the most lift from newcomers link Kari Chichester and sophomore Katrina Wolfe.
The Eagles look like the team to beat.
The Gladiators have enjoyed the same type of success as Centennial under another longtime mentor, Coach Kincaid. Last year, they tied Centennial for the county championship before advancing to the 2A semifinals for the third time in four years, where they lost for the third time in four years.
This year, Glenelg has its sights set on a state crown "We consider it a poor season if we don't play past Halloween," Kincaid says. Although they made it to the finals in 1979, they've yet to win the big prize under Kincaid.
They should remain in the hunt, even though all but two starters graduated -- seniors Katie Stermer (forward) and April Pich (center halfback). Five more players who were part-timers last year move into starting positions, while Kincaid expects a promising crop of juniors from last year's terrific junior varsity (the team went 8-1-2, allowing only one goal all season) to offerimmediate help.
The inexperience could hurt the Gladiators -- at least early -- at the defensive end, where goalie Kristen Turner and sweeper Trisha Slater take over. Kincaid is hoping Pich and returningsenior halfbacks Claire Sneed and Kelley Brunson stabilize the defense, along with returning senior link Jennifer Soule.