Arundel and Old Mill will be looking over their shoulders this fall in their quest of repeating as Anne Arundel County boys and girls cross country champions, respectively.
"I see five to six boys teams competing for the county title," said Old Mill coach Gary Bater, whose boys are in a rebuilding mode while his Patriot girls are primed to defend their title.
Arundel won its first county and region boys title in 17 years last season, and coach Ralph Luce expects his Wildcats to be every bit as good this fall despite graduating All-Metro Geoff Warren.
Class 3A Broadneck and 2A South River are projected as the main threats to 4A Arundel's county crown.
Old Mill's girls nosed out perennial champion Severna Park by a tiebreaker in last year's county meet, but the Falcons went on to win their eighth consecutive region championship. Each of the two teams returns seasoned runners that should have them near the wire again.
With defending county and state champion Kristen Nicolini, The Baltimore Sun's All-Metro Girls Runner of the Year, returning for her senior year, the Annapolis girls also rank as serious contenders.
Nicolini, who is being recruited by such schools as Nebraska, Georgetown, Indiana and Villanova, already has claimed the Griffin Tournament for a third straight year in Frederick and broke her own course record with a time of 18 minutes, 59.4 seconds.
Most of the county teams will compete in tomorrow's Spiked Shoe at Johns Hopkins University and in the highly competitive North County Knights Invitational Thursday at Baybrook Park in Brooklyn.
Those two meets featuring runners from all over the metro area should give the coaches a pretty good idea of the caliber of talent they possess.
Nicolini, a potential national champion, is into her final season. Another state title and subsequent high finish in national competition would be a fitting end to a brilliant four-year high school career.
"Kristen is most definitely the No. 1 girl in the metro area, and if she qualifies for the nationals again, she is capable of doing very well," said coach Brian Funk.
The national qualifier is set for Saturday, Nov. 26 in New York and those who make the cut advance to the nationals in San Diego, Dec. 10. Nicolini was 13th in last year's nationals.
Nicolini won the state 4A title last fall by eight seconds (18:26 to 18:34) over Perry Hall junior Krissy Jost after cruising to the Anne Arundel title with a time of 18:53, well over a minute ahead of Rebecca McDivitt.
For Funk's girls to contend in the county, the youth behind Nicolini, the team's only senior, has to come through. Alison Ross, sixth in last year's county meet as a freshman, juniors Becky Morris and Susan deWolff and freshman Emily Potter need to deliver.
The Annapolis boys are "a team of the future, but not to be taken lightly," said Funk.
Junior Ian Ross is the Panthers' No. 1 boy, and he is joined by sophomores Mike Krug, Jack O'Brien and David Manning and senior Todd Bruner.
Graduation took county champion Warren, but didn't dim the optimism of coach Luce.
"It's hard to say if we can repeat, but this team right now is as good as last year's," said Luce. "We don't have a No. 1 like Geoff, but we have depth."
Luce is counting on seniors Blair Morse (ninth in county last year), Tim Kelley and John Porter, who is coming off a leg injury. Soccer defect Adam Sayani and freshman Ryan Morse, Blair's brother, also are expected to contribute.
On the girls side, the Wildcats have only six runners led by sophomore Heather Barstch, and seniors Emily Sours and Tracy Thoma. Juniors Jessie Lescroart and Katie Kowley, and promising freshman Jasmine Rose make up the team.
Kowley blew a knee a year ago, and just came out two days ago.
South River coach Scott Baker said, "Broadneck [boys] is the favorite. Everybody knows that."
That "everybody" includes Bruins' coach Jerry Kiple, whose boys finished second in the county to Arundel and runner-up to Centennial of Howard County in the 3A Regional and sixth in the state 3A meet.
Juniors Dave Schilling and Jon Carnes, 11th and 13th, respectively in the county last year, will team up with seniors Mike Bangert (26th) and Justin Govar (27th). First-year junior Ryan Schmidt gives the Bruins a solid No. 5.
Nicole Weisburger and Mary Williams are the top two senior girls, but juniors Colleen Rossiter (18th) and Laura Stickles (24th) are the top two returnees.
Kiple also is excited about the potential of sophomore Amy Campen and freshmen Stephanie Hooper and Meredith Alig.
Veteran Cougar coach John Maguire might have the sleeper in the boys race with potential county champion Ryan Stevens. Stevens, one of four returning seniors, was fourth in last year's county championships at 16:56.
"Ryan has to be one of the favorites for the county championship," said Maguire. "Our boys look good."