Graduation hit Howard County's field hockey teams hard.
All of last year's stars are gone. Nine of the 11 All-Howard County players graduated, including both All-Metro honorees, Centennial midfielder Katrina Wolfe and Oakland Mills goalkeeper Kelly Naylor.
The returning All-County players -- Centennial's Karyn Bruns and Wilde Lake's Melissa Anderson -- belong to the teams that finished first and second, respectively, in the county last year.
Only one of those teams appears ready to make the climb back to the top -- Centennial.
The rest of the league appears pretty balanced with Mount Hebron and Hammond given the best chances to be nipping at Centennial's heels.
"I don't think there's a clear-cut favorite this year, but I would have to give the edge to Centennial," said Mount Hebron coach Jeannette Ireland, who ran the county field hockey summer league.
"They lost their midfield, but they've got Emily Ward, Karyn Bruns and some kids who went to Europe and played over the summer."
Glenelg coach Ginger Kincaid agreed, "Centennial has really strong individual players. We'll have to see how well they gel as a team."
Ireland and Kincaid would get no argument from Eagles coach Gail Purcell, who said this is the best team she has ever coached. The Eagles won the county title last year and reached their Class 3A regional final, losing to Linganore.
But Purcell thought they could have done a little better.
"The bottom line is we didn't win all of the games we should have won last year," said Purcell. "We lost to Glenelg and we had a real shot to beat Linganore and we didn't. This group is just very focused. Last year, we were too young to be there,
but this group has their goals set and they're on target."
Wilde Lake, which made a huge surge to second place in the county last season, probably will drop off the pace after losing 11 seniors. Only two starters return, leaving Howard County Coach of the Year Karen Doerrler with a rebuilding job.
To make matters worse, the Wildecats are a team without a home base at their new school at River Hill, so they will play their home games at Cedar Lane. Like the rest of Wilde Lake's teams, they have begged and borrowed equipment from other county teams while theirs remain locked in a trailer. Luckily, athletic director Carol Satterwhite took all of the uniforms home, so the Wildecats at least have something to wear.
The county's six remaining teams should be improved this season, shrinking the gap between the top and bottom of the league.
Mount Hebron already has scored an impressive win over perennial power Middletown of Frederick County, so the Vikings could give Centennial its greatest challenge. Hammond should be more balanced and it could push the Eagles.
Oakland Mills will have to make up for the loss of Naylor. But if they can beef up the defense enough to pick up the slack, the Scorpions could be in the race.
Glenelg, coming off a rough season, might not be ready to challenge for the county title, but the Gladiators could be strong enough to qualify for the regional playoffs. Unlike soccer and volleyball, field hockey will not have an open regional tournament.
The county's only private school team, Glenelg Country School, could make some headway in the Association of Independent Schools B Division this season.
The AIS has an open tournament, and the Dragons came on strong late in the season to reach the semifinals. This year, coach Patti Ordonez returns enough talent to challenge some of the league's best teams, including defending champ Oldfields, John Carroll and Seton Keough.
The Dragons play their only game against county competition on Sept. 23 when they play host to Atholton.