Last spring, the Howard boys tennis team defeated traditional powerhouses Centennial and River Hill, and finished with a record of 14-3, second best in the county behind undefeated champion Atholton.
It was the Lions' best season in more than a decade, an outcome that few opponents expected heading into the spring. This year, Howard will not have the element of surprise on its side. But it may not matter.
After graduating only two starters from last year's team, the Lions are poised to take the next step in 2012.
"It has been a long time (since) teams have gunned for Howard, but this team is focused with a county title on (its) mind," fifth-year coach Chip Boling said. "On any given day, our top four players can beat each other ... last year was no fluke and tennis at Howard is on the rise."
Led by senior Seth Hoesman and junior Andrew Pagan at the singles spots, the Lions will be tough to beat this year. But Atholton, which has a record of 61-4 over the past four seasons, can't be overlooked. The Raiders graduated county finalist Steven Lee, but return his younger brother — Scott — as well as accomplished seniors Charles Mao and Zach Kim.
In the race for the coveted boys singles county championship, Reservoir's defending champion, Biyik Akinshemoyin, is the prohibitive favorite. The tall and athletic junior placed fourth at the state tournament last year, and now has his sights set on a state title.
River Hill freshman Nick Zhu, who trains alongside Akinshemoyin at the College Park Tennis Center and plays a rigorous USTA tournament schedule, will be a player to watch, and could give Akinshemoyin some competitive matches.
Centennial juniors Kevin Hsieh and Chase Weinberg were the county and regional doubles champions last year, and Hsieh was the only county player to defeat Akinshemoyin.
On the girls side, Akinshemoyin's new teammate — junior Swedish exchange student Annie Evaldsson — is very experienced, and will be a strong candidate to compete for a county title and more.
In the team race, it's hard to imagine anyone other than River Hill ruling the county. The Lady Hawks have won four straight county titles, going 60-4 during that stretch. However, that was with Rena Shi and Audrey Cheng leading the way. Both of those players have graduated, leaving a great void to fill.
A pair of talented youngsters — sophomore Caitlin Stewart-Moore and junior Kiera Hanrahan — elevate to the top of the Hawks' ladder.
"We are a relatively young girls team but (there is) still a lot of talent coming up," River Hill coach Jennifer Stoker said.
The Atholton girls team, which won nine matches last year without a senior in its top four, could be a strong contender as one of the most experienced teams in the league.
Last year, a mixed doubles spot was added to competition during the second half of the league season. This year, mixed doubles will be contested from start to finish.
In the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, Glenelg Country returns conference finalist Evan Schlick after a 6-2 season.
Omri Kagan takes over for Bobby Hoffman at Hammond. Hoffman spent three seasons with the Golden Bears, leading the girls to 35 wins and county runner-up performances in 2009 and 2010. He is in charge of the Columbia Association's Junior Tennis Program, and no longer has the necessary time to devote to the Hammond team, but he figures to still be active in the local high school tennis scene. Kagan, a fourth-year math teacher at Hammond, was born in Israel and played basketball and tennis while growing up in Houston. He served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin.
Here's a look at each Howard County team heading into the season.