Mount Hebron's viselike grip on the county girls lacrosse title appears to be tighter than ever.
The Vikings have won three of the four titles since the county initiated the sport, and their prospects for a fourth are looking good.
Of course, Centennial and Glenelg will refute any claim that Mount Hebron is a shoo-in. And Hammond and Atholton will be close behind,each hoping to make a breakthrough this year.
Howard, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake will bring up the rear.
The new regional playoffformat means the top four teams in each region now qualify. Previously, a team had to win its region to be assured a spot. The remaining spots were given on a statewide at-large basis.
Here is a look at each county team:
The Raiders return 11 players including five of their top six scorers from last year.
Leading scorer Allison Valentino tallied 46 goals as a sophomore and will draw constant double coverage. Senior Ali Auclair also is back after scoring 30 goals last season.
Senior goalie Kirsten Kruhm, in her fourth varsity season, is among the team's top players and is being recruited byMaryland.
The Raiders have some speed with senior attackman Jen Brock, junior midfielder Christy Seagerson and sophomore midfielder Lara Dustin.
Atholton also has good height with 6-foot senior defenseman Dana McGraw and 5-foot-11 senior attackman Auclair. Senior Kristen Murphy is a top defensive player.
"Our strength will be our experience, and our weakness so far has been our transitional midfield play," said second-year coach Carolann Stevens.
Atholton, 3-10 lastyear, lost its opening game to Liberty, 9-6.
Coach Gail Purcell calls this her most solid team since 1990, when the Eagles upset Mount Hebron for the county title.
The Eagles are strong in goal with returnee Renee Svehla and newcomer Laure Kaylor.
And the defense is intact from last year, with the addition of sophomore newcomer Jamie Fontaine, a fine athlete whose quickness and aggressiveness could set the tone for the team.
Centennial returns two skilled scorers -- senior attackmen Heather Saunders (19 goals) and Lauren Mooney (21 goals).
The Eagles also have plenty of quickness on offense with junior midfielder Alison Lages, and junior attackmen Lilly Hahm and Paige Nettelbladt.
"I think the attack will do its part, but defense will be the key," Purcell said.
Senior Amy Morrison will anchor the defense.
The Eagles are coming off a 9-4 season and are still relatively young, with only six seniors. The team took iton the chin from top-ranked Loch Raven on Tuesday, 20-4. But the Eagles should be tough the rest of the way.
The Gladiatorsreturn 11 players from a 5-7 team that failed for the first time to make the playoffs last year. They were a hard-luck squad that lost five times by a single goal.
This year, Glenelg should return as oneof the dominant teams.
Glenelg has speed with senior midfielders Alex Sellner, Sarah Jones and Michelle Hooker, and junior midfieldersHeather Shumake and Tricia Slater.
Senior attackman Katie Stermerhas the best stickwork on the squad, but Coach Ginger Kincaid looks for balanced scoring and more passing than last year.
Junior newcomer Heather Inkman will bolster the scoring.
Jennifer Soule will play the cover-point position on defense, and Jennifer Anderson will be at point.
"We are a small team and a little weak on physical strength at attack," Kincaid said. "That hurts our one-on-one ability. But we'll hold our own among the top three teams."
Glenelg toughened its schedule this season by picking up Loch Raven.
The Golden Bears are hoping for a honey of a season. They return 11 players, including Autumn Barbosa who scored a school-record 36 goals last year.
Senior attackman Natasha Lasonsky should join Barbosa as potent offensive forces. Each scored five times in a 13-12 win over Spalding.
Hammond's offense will work best if it stays with a deliberate passing game, instead of a run and gun. They lost to Keough, 15-8, when the pace turned torrid.
"We are looking for our best yearever," Coach Gay Petrlik said. The Bears, 4-8 last season, never have won more than five games.
Petrlik expects five or six players tobe able to score and thinks her defense is strong.
Despite the advantage of 10 seniors, two sophomores are expected to make their mark. Jennifer Brown is a speedy, aggressive midfielder with good game sense and a knack for capturing ground balls. And Natalie Serianni willstart at attack wing.
Senior midfielders Lauren Choate and Erin Beerman provide some much-needed speed.
"This is the first year we didn't have to start on basics like catching and throwing," Petrlik said. "There's great enthusiasm, and I see progress."
TheLions return eight players from a team that went 1-11.
The numberof returnees is encouraging news for first-year coach Terry Flaig.