Once again the area's top teams are in Anne Arundel County, but perennial favorites Chesapeake and Northeast do not seem invincible as in past years.
Two-time defending Class 4A state champion Chesapeake will have to compensate for the loss of several key players to graduation, specifically pitcher Amy Jakubowski, The Baltimore Sun Player of the Year last season. But the Cougars are well-coached and figure to have a potent lineup, so they are the team to beat until proven otherwise.
Northeast is seeking its fifth straight Class 2A state title, but will probably have a tougher time this season. The Eagles return one full-time starter.
With Chesapeake and Northeast appearing somewhat vulnerable, the opportunity is there for county rivals North County, Severna Park, Old Mill and Glen Burnie to surge ahead of the two powers in the rankings.
Baltimore County's 4A-3A favorite is defending champion Dulaney, while Towson is expected to set the pace in the 2A-1A Division.
North Carroll is the favorite in Carroll County, as the Panthers attempt to capture their third consecutive Class 3A state championship.
The Cougars, 21-3 last season, lost a lot when Amy Jakubowski, The Baltimore Sun's Player of the Year, graduated. Veterans Becky Thiele (first base), Natalie Black (catcher) and Nancy Yaeger (third base) will lead the team. Thiele led the Cougars in steals and hit .500 last season. Junior outfielder Stacey Necessary is back and, along with junior Tracy Starke, should supply the Cougars with power.
2. NORTH COUNTY
Seven starters return for coach Sue Fitchett from last year's 12-6 squad, including senior pitcher Karen Hay (11-5, 1.81 ERA). Hay, who batted .371, had two no-hitters to give her 16 for her career. She will get support from backup pitcher Kristie Reinhardt. All-county third baseman Tina Armstrong (.512) returns, and catcher Lisa Garrison will start for the fourth straight season.
3. ARCHBISHOP SPALDING
With senior windmiller Kim Sheridan back, coach Jim Nemeth's Cavaliers (18-1) are a virtual lock to repeat as Catholic League regular-season and tournament champions. Sheridan enters the season with 588 career strikeouts and a 0.62 ERA. Last season, the right-hander struck out 180 in 96 innings for a 14-1 record and 0.15 ERA. Sheridan, who has a 45-7 career record, also batted .320 and drove in 14 runs. The Cavaliers will get additional offense from second baseman Amy Councilman and catcher Jen McKeldin, both four-year starters.
4. SEVERNA PARK
First-year coach Wayne Mook has sophomore pitcher Jen Spampinato (11-5), who should improve. The lineup is filled with heavy hitters, such as seniors Kerri Schmale (.407), Dana Gosewisch (.383) and Lana Boarman (.333).
5. OLD MILL
First-year coach Lori Darnall takes over a team (13-7) that has lost to Chesapeake in the regional playoffs the past three seasons. All-Metro outfielder Jennifer Schmittle, who also won eight games and struck out 108 with a 0.98 ERA last year, returns. Schmittle also batted .327 with seven triples. The pitching is deep, with junior Karen Jacobson, who saw spot duty last season, and senior Jennifer Bostak, who was out with a knee injury. Leading hitter Sarah Storrs (.481) also is back.
One starter -- senior Stacy Reynolds (2-0, 0.00 ERA) -- returns from a 19-3 squad that won its fourth straight Class 2A state championship and the seventh in the past 10 years for coach Lynn Pitonzo. But several key players are up from a winning junior varsity to join senior Shannon McCaugey (shortstop, third base) and senior utility players Rae Ann Detrey and Jen Vickery.
7. GLEN BURNIE
The Gophers (16-4) were hit hard by graduation. But All-Metro senior center fielder Erin Sutton (.440, 19 steals) returns, as does senior shortstop Heather Smith (.368). The pitching is a question mark, but senior Stacey Jordan, who didn't allow a run in two appearances, is expected to settle in. The team is young, but the talent is there for a return to the playoffs.
The return of senior pitcher Jodi Meitl is good news for the Eagles, 15-6 and co-Howard County champions last season. Meitl, 11-2 with an 0.80 ERA as a sophomore, missed all of last season after she was injured in a car accident. Three other key players return: junior catcher Kari Chichester (.347), senior right fielder Becky Joeckel (.380) and junior shortstop Kelly Butler (.400).
9. NORTH CARROLL
The Panthers (19-4) have a solid nucleus from last year's Class 3A state championship team. The outfield is set with returning seniors, led by Vickie Jackson. Seniors Tina Martin and Shelly Woodburn will anchor the infield. North Carroll will have to find someone to replace three-year pitcher Michelle Ament, who graduated.