About 90 percent of softball success hinges on pitching. The teams with fast, accurate pitchers usually contend for the county title.
Strong pitching is why John Carroll and Aberdeen battled for the county title last year. And it's why they'll be a step above everyone else again this year.
John Carroll's Bonnie Lawson and Aberdeen's Rachel Cassady are the top pitchers in the league. They are the ones with the speed.
Havre de Grace's Rebecca Hawkins and C. Milton Wright's Jenny Lewis aregood too, but they will have to add more speed if they hope to crackthe upper echelon.
Most coaches say the gap between the top teamsand the bottom teams is narrowing, especially in the middle of the pack, but they still predict defending champ John Carroll and Aberdeento be in an exclusive race for the title.
"I think a lot of teamshave potential this year," said Fallston coach Vicki Wright.
"ButJohn Carroll and Aberdeen will definitely be the top teams. Aberdeendoesn't have that many players back, but they have Rachel. You can hide eight players behind a pitcher, without a doubt."
Player-for-player, however, John Carroll is the better team. Neal Drexel's Patriots (15-2) return four starters, including Amity Torbit, Katie Nietubicz and Ellen Marr in the infield. They have some solid youngsters to fill in the holes.
Graduation hurt Aberdeen more, so Janie Anderson's Eagles may spend the season trying to catch the Patriots. The Eagles return five starters, including Kelly Eakin, Beth Oates, Lisa Williamson and Jackie Elliot, but they don't return much offensive power.
Havre de Grace and C. Milton Wright will probably battle for third, but Fallston, Edgewood or Bel Air could spoil those plans.
While pitchers dominate the league, there are other players who will have an effect on the standings. Here is a dozen to watch:
* Kristin Bauersfeld (senior, outfielder, Fallston) -- The only outfielder among the top 12, Bauersfeld batted .469 and led the Cougars in extra base hits and on-base percentage. With good coverage and a solid arm, she will start in center field.
* Tonia Bruno (junior, catcher, North Harford) -- The only starter back for the young Hawks, Bruno is strong behind the plate and at bat. She hit .416 and threw out 14 base runners last year.
* Rachel Cassady (senior, pitcher, Aberdeen) -- Throwing the windmill pitch at close to 60 mph, Cassady was 13-6 a year ago. She throws with accuracy and has four pitches in her repertoire, including a new changeup.
* Rebecca Hawkins (junior, pitcher, Havre de Grace) -- Hawkins didn't win as many games as she should have last year, because the Warriors made so many errors. With a 3.00 ERA, she has improved both her speed and control this season.
* Bonnie Lawson (junior, pitcher, John Carroll) -- Lawson posted the best numbers of any pitcher in the league last year. Her record was 13-1 with a 2.70 ERA. She struck out 154 in 101 innings, but she also walked152. Lawson has worked on her control, and it should be better.
*Katie Nietubicz (junior, second baseman, John Carroll) -- Coach NealDrexel said Nietubicz has the best swing on his ball club, and that translated into a .409 batting average last year. Nietubicz is also solid in the field, where the Patriots don't make many errors.
* Maria Poggioli (senior, second baseman, Bel Air) -- The Bobcats' leadoff hitter, Poggioli had a .617 on base percentage. She batted .333 andlead the team in walks and stolen bases. At the same time, her fielding average was .916.
* Danielle Rivas (senior, first baseman, C. Milton Wright) -- At 5-11, Rivas was the county's top first baseman last year. She fielded .976 while hitting. 378 with 20 RBI's and sevenextra-base hits.
* Monica Santana (junior, shortstop, Edgewood) -- An excellent all-around athlete, Santana is a natural at softball. She played third base for a while last year, but Everett quickly moved her to short. In addition to her strong fielding abilities, Santanabatted .467 last year.
* Jennie Stagnoli (senior, shortstop, C. Milton Wright) -- One of the Mustangs' biggest hitters, Stagnoli batted .367 last year with seven extra-base hits, including a home run. She should easily improve her fielding average of .845.
* Amity Torbit (junior, shortstop, John Carroll) -- The Patriots' leadoff hitter batted .475 last year. Torbit is a vacuum cleaner in the field where she and Nietubicz make an excellent combination.
* Abby Walls (senior, catcher, C. Milton Wright) -- Behind the plate last year, Walls fielded .932 and threw out 15 base runners. She was also a top hitterfor the Mustangs, batting .393 with 20 RBI and six extra-base hits.