After winning both state championships and having three of the four state finalists, it's hard to imagine how the county girls soccer program could get much better -- but it has.
Almost every team, including state champions Centennial (Class and Hammond (Class 2A/1A), should be as good or better than last season.
Seven of the eight girls teams qualified for regional playoffs last season ( all but Atholton), and that same number may qualify again.
Last season marked the end of six straight county titles for Oakland Mills, but Centennial, which posted a 16-0 season, now looks like the team to beat.
The coaching situation remains in flux. Mount Hebron and Howard have new coaches. And there were four first-year coaches last year.
This year's school administration-mandated delay in starting practice from Aug. 15 to Aug. 25 is on the minds of most coaches, some of whom have already seen player injuries they think an earlier start might have prevented. Teams have engaged in scrimmages with schools that began Aug. 15 and have come out physically battered, coaches say, because of the difference in the amount of training time.
Here is a team-by-team look:
To say that Atholton is young is certainly an understatement. The Raiders return only four starters and eight who earned letters.
And they will start four sophomores and three freshmen.
That situation makes second-year coach Jane Koren shy away from predictions about how many games the team might win.
Two sophomores started last season, goalkeeper Sara Buckley and halfback Stephanie Van Deusen. Van Deusen is a state-team player with a high level of skills and leadership.
But Buckley has a broken thumb and will miss September.
Returning seniors Chrissy Dibella, a fullback, and Alison Goodstadt, a halfback and co-captain, offer the team additional experience and will be starters. Junior fullback Jaime Green is a returnee with experience.
Sophomore halfbacks Katy Strain and Amrit Dhillon, freshman forwards Alika Crew and Lisa Spilkia, and freshman fullback Mandy Robins also should start.
Last year the Eagles played like a big, red machine, outscoring opponents, 64-10, on the way to a 16-0 season and state Class 4A/3A title.
/# In the state playoffs, they out
scored opponents, 8-1, and in the regional playoffs, 9-0. They posted seven shutouts. And only one team, Howard, scored as many as two goals against them.
Centennial returns 12 who earned letters, most of whom either started or played a lot.
Sweeper Becky Yoeckel graduated and will be hard to replace. Clare Henley, the player second-year coach Rick Pizarro last season groomed for that job, is out with mononucleosis. Junior Kathy Gallagher or sophomore Shara Boonshaft will play there until Henley returns.
But marking fullbacks Paige Nettelbladt, a senior, and Jamie Fontaine, a junior, are back along with junior goalie Laura Bradburn.
Playmaker Natalie Rich, a senior, will again make life miserable for opposing defenders. She's superb in the air and has a strong foot.
Striker Vicki Brunt, a senior, returns from a 16-goal, eight-assist season.
Centennial had seven players who could score last season. All are back.
The Eagles also have two promising freshmen, keeper Rima Sidhu and striker Michelle Clare.
Second-year coach Neil Gwinn returns 12 letter-earners including six seniors, and figures the team will be stronger than last year's 6-6-1 squad.
Gwinn, a striker on the U.S. soccer team that will play next summer in Bulgaria at the World Games for the deaf, graduated most of his defense.
But the midfield returns intact, led by junior Christina Flowers, a second-team All-County selection.
"She makes things happen and really controls the midfield," Gwinn said.
Seniors Scotti Sellers and Heather Shumake are other strong halfbacks.
Gwinn is looking at sophomore Tracy Service as a possible sweeper, and junior Megan Lewis as the stopper.
The goal-keeping position is still undecided. Sophomore Rebecca Christen, a transfer from Kentucky, and returning senior Christie Harris, are competing for that spot.
The Gladiators already have won two scrimmages, 6-0 over Edgewood and 9-1 over Brunswick.
The Bears return three stars and a strong supporting cast from a team that went 15-1 and won the state Class 2A/1A title -- their second in three years.
Senior All-Met striker and regional-team ODP sweeper Samantha Andersch (18 goals, 17 assists), dominant junior playmaker Kacy Williams (10g, 12a), and junior striker Kisha Jett who led the league with 26 goals, give Hammond a threesome unmatched in the state.
Senior stopper Michele Reiter, junior halfbacks Liz Bielefeld and Katy Evans, junior striker/halfback Natalie Serianni and junior fullbacks Melanie White and Karen Fink provide a good supporting cast.
Tameka West, a senior fullback who transferred from Oakland Mills, may move into the sweeper spot vacated by the graduation of Jackie Rieschick, The Baltimore Sun Player of the Year last year.