Sue Chittim finds herself doubly blessed these days.
After two seasons of building, the Annapolis girls lacrosse coach has more talentat her disposal than she's had in her three-year tenure.
However, should Chittim's Panthers reach the playoffs -- a feat nearly accomplished in last year's 8-4 campaign -- she's also blessed in a way that might force her to miss their last few games.
"I'm about a month away from having a baby," said Chittim, whose 3-0 Panthers are ranked No. 9 among the area's top 15 teams in the Baltimore Sun poll.
Senior attacker Cory Harmon (38 goals, 10 assists last year) is one of 12 players who return from a Panthers squad that droppedthree games by one goal, including two in overtime. And the Panthersbrought a five-game winning streak into this season.
While Chittim admits being taken aback by the attention given to her squad in area newspapers, she is equally impressed with her players' response.
"We've got six new starters in the lineup, so at first I was worriedhow they'd respond to the varsity pressure. But everything started to click right away and they've looked like veterans," said Chittim, who starts just five seniors.
"I'm thrilled with the press we've been getting. I've had to come up with answers to questions I've never been asked before."
So far, her Panthers have left few questions unanswered.
They are led by sophomore attacker Cristi Samaras (16 goals, one assist), Harmon (seven, three) and senior Ali Naditch (two,two) and junior Heather Knutson (three goals).
Juniors Lauren Feinstein (attack) and Cory Samaras (defense) have two goals each, and two prolific sophomores have been attacker Tamie Phipps (two goals, one assist) and defender Courtney Hackett (one, one).
"The balance between the offense and the defense has been really exciting," said Chittim, whose Panthers have outscored their opponents by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1, including their season-opening 8-4 win over No. 14 Broadneck.
"I thought the Broadneck game would be very close, but I thought we dominated," said Chittim, whose squad led, 4-0, in the game'sfirst five minutes and had an advantage in both ground balls and faceoffs.
Not bad for a program that was just 6-5-1 in Chittim's first season two years ago.
"I keep waiting for the first-game jittersto take over, but our girls continue to play hard the entire game," said Chittim. "We're taking this season one game at a time, but afterthis (Friday), we stand a chance of being 4-0 and that would just bespectacular."
But it's going to take a spectacular effort for thePanthers to win this Friday, because they're playing host to five-time Class 4A-3A state champion Severna Park.
A Severna Park squad led by first-team All-County attacker Hillary Kuker (68 goals, 22 assists) and second-teamer Holly Roessler (41 goals) escaped last year's contest with a narrow decision, but the Samaras sisters say things will be different this year.
"Last year, we were leading by three goals with three minutes left and they still beat us. But we can get them this year," said Cory Samaras of the 3-0 Falcons, whose victories include an 8-7 win over Broadneck. "We feel that Annapolis has the strongest team it has ever had."
But the Carin Peterson-coached Falcons, ranked No. 2 in the area, are not new to teams aiming to dethrone them.
Last year's squad downed Chesapeake, 9-5, to win its statetitle, shutting down the Cougars' top scoring duo of Diane McBee (73goals) and Julie Smith (52).
The victory avenged the Falcons' regular-season 17-16 loss in which the Cougars ended Severna Park's winning streak at 57.
"I think they'll probably focus on Cristi, but she can get out of it so quick, that it's not even funny," Cory said. "And we have a very strong offense, so I don't think they can block out everybody."
Said Cristi Samaras: "I'm a little nervous about the game, but I'm glad they'll have to focus on me. That will open things up for the rest of the team, and our defense speaks for itself."
Cory Samaras, Emily Chones and keeper Carrie Lewis have held the opposition to just 12 goals.
"Carrie's just been tremendous," said Chittim. "Against Broadneck, she made a lot of one-on-one stops and she'll probably need to make some key saves for us."