North Harford coach Lin James groans at the suggestion her team is the preseason No. 1 in Harford County girls basketball.
Last year, the Hawks were the early pick, but they ended up tying Bel Air for the county title. The Bobcats overcame inexperience to upset the Hawks in the regular season finale.
Although James returns three starters from last year's 20-3 team,she warns that the Hawks could still face some tough competition.
"Bel Air and C. Milton Wright will be in there," James said. "You just can't write people off because they lost a number of players."
But the Hawks look like the team to beat. None of the other contenders has as much experience. North Harford returns three key inside players in forwards Carie James (14 points, 14.8 rebounds) and Shannon Bracken (10.2 points), as well as back-up center Tonia Bruno.
Also back is point guard Valerie Phipps, who is getting off to a slow startafter suffering a broken leg in soccer.
While Phipps is bouncing back, the Hawks have Nicole Bogarty running the point. Bogarty leads a group of strong sophomores up from the county champ junior varsity.Guard Melissa Anderson and swing player Jennifer Walter should also start.
In addition to winning the county title, the Hawks have settheir sights on winning a Class 2A regional championship. North Harford has finished second to Parkside, from the Eastern Shore, the lasttwo years.
The team most likely to challenge the Hawks is C. Milton Wright, but the Mustangs will not be at full power early. Junior forward Stacey Milton (11 points, 10 rebounds) is recovering from a broken finger and mononucleosis. Coach Gloria Liedlich doesn't expect Milton back at full strength until mid-season.
The Mustangs also look thin at guard. Junior Debbie Keiser, a hustling back-up last year,is the only guard with experience. Returning forward Kim Haker can move outside, but she still is not fully recovered from knee surgery over the summer.
If the Mustangs get off to a slow start, they probably will fall too far behind to press the Hawks for the county title. But they should peak in time to make a run at the Class 3A regionalchampionship.
Bel Air has lost the most talent of the top three. Only one starter, point guard Lisa Thomas, is back. Thomas averaged seven points, four assists and just over three steals a game last year, but she didn't draw much defensive attention.
This year, the opposition will look to shut her down and put the pressure on her less experienced teammates. Forward Amy Sullivan was last year's sixth player, and center Jen Emig saw some time. Both will be major factors in how well the Bobcats' season goes.
If they can improve quickly andThomas can remain effective, the Bobcats could peak in time to contend for the Class 3A regional title.
Havre de Grace returns four starters and could move up a notch in the standings. Nitrease Hamilton,a 6-0 senior center who averaged 17 points and 18 rebounds last year, leads the Warriors.
The rest of the league's teams -- Fallston, Joppatowne, Aberdeen and Edgewood -- are inexperienced.
Fallston, led by guard Cindy Jenkins, and Joppatowne, led by swing player ThoriStaples, have talent, but they also have a lot of questions.
Aberdeen and Edgewood, each with a new coach, have the least experience. Aberdeen has no seniors and Edgewood has just two, so both coaches are building for the future. Still, both teams have players with great potential, and either one could steal a game from one of the top three.
John Carroll will struggle in the mighty Catholic League, although the Patriots are among the best teams in Harford County. Led by guards Amy Dean and Krystin Porcella, the Patriots shoot well from outside and play tough defense. But the top Catholic League teams have all that and more.
Coach: George Connolly, first season
Assistants: Lynette Shelley, Janie Robinson and Sanciahera Jones
Last year's record: 3-17
Starters lost: 3
Returnees: Deanna Johnson, 5-4, jr., PG; Siobhan Kelly, 5-9, jr., C; Stephanie Hooks, 5-7, so., F; Kenya Jordan, 5-5, jr., F/G; Michelle Motley, 5-7, jr., G; Jesica Rivera, 5-10, jr., F.
Newcomers: Erna Jones, 5-7, so., F/PG; Natasha Hunt, 5-5, so., G; Tyra Kenly, 5-10, jr., C; Monica Trottie, 5-5, jr., G; Michelle Germany, 5-8, jr., F.
Coach's outlook: "We hope we can improve on that record. Realistically, a team is not going to go 3-17 and turn around and be 17-3. If we can play .500 ball that would be realistic goal for us. But we'll take anything better."