Not many teams could lose their two best players, carry five freshmen on their roster and still retain their No. 1 ranking.
Then again, there aren't many teams like Western.
Although Player of the Year Dana Johnson has graduated and All-Metro forward Kisha Ford transferred to Bryn Mawr, Western coach Breezy Bishop remains optimistic.
And with good reason.
The five freshmen played for the state AAU champion, which was ranked fifth in the nation. They join a solid core of returning players from last season's team, including All-Metro forward Kelly Evans and talented point guard Erika Dailey.
"We're young, and the odds are against us repeating the incredible success we had last season," said Bishop, who led the Doves to a 25-1 finish and the City-Wide, Baltimore City Public Schools and Metro Classic titles last season. "We have good depth and incredible quickness. This team makes me excited."
As usual, Western and Walbrook are the top teams in the City-Wide League. Lake Clifton may have the talent to raise its game a notch to Western's and Walbrook's level.
The Doves will be tested early when they play host to No. 2 Mount Hebron on Saturday.
Mount Hebron is a heavy favorite to win its 12th Howard County League title in 14 seasons under coach Dave Greenberg. The Vikings also have a good shot at winning their third straight Class 2A state title and their sixth in seven years.
The Vikings, who lost their opener to Strath Haven, Pa., 45-42, have a tough December schedule, but Greenberg believes the competition should make his team better in March.
Howard County has perhaps the area's best league, with Hammond, Glenelg and Howard joining Mount Hebron in the top 10.
There's no doubt who the favorite in Anne Arundel County is -- defending Class 4A state champion Old Mill. The Patriots surprised many by winning the championship last season starting three sophomores and carrying two seniors on the squad. But with nine players back, another state title this season wouldn't surprise anyone.
St. Mary's is the prohibitive favorite in the Catholic League, which switches from a two-division alignment to one. Four teams -- Catholic, Lutheran, Notre Dame Prep and Towson Catholic -- left the Catholic League for the Association of Independent Schools.
Speaking of the AIS, the league considered one of the area's weakest in recent years gained instant credibility when Ford left Western for Bryn Mawr. With Ford, the area's top player, the Mawrtians get the nod as favorites ahead of defending champion McDonogh.
Woodlawn again appears to be the top team in Baltimore County, but Dulaney and Catonsville could overtake the Warriors this season.
Look for North Harford to set the pace in Harford County and Westminster to do the same in Carroll County.
Here is a look at the preseason top 20, with last season's records in parentheses:
1 Western (25-1)
* All-Metro 6-1 junior forward Kelly Evans (14.7 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game) and 5-4 junior point guard Erika Dailey (8.8 ppg, 4.3 assists per game, 3.4 steals per game) will be expected to assume leadership roles, as a crop of talented freshmen try to make the transition from the recreation leagues to high school competition. Heading the freshmen is 6-0 guard Chanel Wright, an AAU All-American who has "unlimited potential," said coach Breezy Bishop. Freshmen Danielle Davis, a 6-2 center, and Tesha Tinsley, a 5-7 guard, also are expected to start in the Doves' three-guard offense. Western is talented, has good size and speed and is deep at every position.
2 Mount Hebron (23-3)
* The Vikings lost three starters, but coach Dave Greenberg has plenty of returning talent, including 5-2 All-Metro junior point guard Erica McCauley (15.5 ppg, 5 apg), who leads a potent offense that averaged 59 points last season. McCauley combines superb outside shooting (44 percent from three-point range) and ball-handling and will lead a man-to-man defense that rarely should allow more than 40 points. McCauley should get plenty of backcourt help from returning 5-8 sophomore guard Emily Yanero (7.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and junior 5-3 guard Sandy Lewis. The Vikings also should be strong up front with returning junior forwards Kris Bryant (5.2 ppg, 5 rpg), Sandra Benson and Tierney Clark.
3 Old Mill (24-2)
* Stacy Himes (11.8 ppg, 8 rpg, 4 apg, 4 spg), a 5-9 All-Metro guard/forward, will lead coach Pat Chance's talented junior-laden squad. Himes is a versatile player, solid in all aspects of the game, but the team has enough depth that it doesn't have to rely on her alone. The Patriots' nine returnees include 6-foot juniors Anne Chicorelli and Debbie Dawson in the frontcourt, as well as 5-9 senior Cindy Davenport and 5-10 junior Allison Wentworth. The backcourt includes 5-6 junior Chris Baer, 5-5 senior Amy D'Annunzio, 5-8 junior Lee Ann Lezzer and 5-4 sophomore Michelle Salmon, Anne Arundel County's Player of the Year in soccer.
4 St. Mary's (19-9)