Last year, the powerhouse teams in Howard County volleyball were evident from the beginning of the season all the way until the end.
Howard, led by eventual Player of the Year Sydney Biniak, and Glenelg, led by three-time first-team selection Morgan Perry, were tabbed as the favorites to contend for a county title entering the season, and that's exactly how things panned out. Howard defeated Glenelg in five sets for the county championship on the last day of the regular season.
The Lions eventually lost to Dulaney in the 4A regional championship, Glenelg fell to Damascus in the state semifinals, and for the first time in 25 years Howard County was not represented in the state finals.
This fall, things appear much murkier as the season gets under way.
"It's a new season. The majority of our county championship team has graduated. We will strive to achieve that same level of success, but we are not here to compare ourselves to the past," Howard coach Grant Scott said. "My bet is that it will be another very competitive season with multiple teams having a chance to win the county title."
Both Glenelg and Howard return all-county players — Sarah Girard (212 kills, 61 aces, 342 digs) and Rachael Girard (675 assists, 62 aces) for the Gladiators, and setter Hanna Webster (592 assists) for the Lions — but those teams also graduated a wealth of starting talent, including Biniak and Perry.
"Although young in high school experience, many of (our) newer players have competed at a high level at the club level," said Glenelg coach Jason Monjes. "The team may be a touch shorter in physical height, (but we are) quicker and more athletic ... I think the county is more wide open than last year, but expect Glenelg to compete near the top."
Two other teams that were hit hard by graduation, but are coming off of outstanding seasons, are Mt. Hebron and River Hill. Each team graduated multiple all-county players, but have shown promise in the preseason.
One team that many coaches have pointed to as a possible surprise county-title contender is Wilde Lake, which won 10 matches last year and returns four starters, including prolific setter Meghan Morales (244 assists, 43 aces) and dynamic outside hitter Kelly Surkovich (95 kills, 123 digs).
"Wilde Lake returns the most, I feel, and lost the least," Monjes said.
While Marriotts Ridge won only four matches against league competition, the Mustangs will similarly return more experience than most teams in the league. Coach Amanda Olsen counts seven players on her squad with starting experience, including junior setter Rachel Dubbs (140 assists, 31 aces).
"We have a solid senior class this season, supported by some outstanding juniors," Olsen said. "I expect my team to be competitive this year. My returning players are looking very good together, and I think we have a strong core group."
Reservoir, led by powerful senior hitter Maddy Belt, could also be a force.
The season kicks off on Friday, Sept. 5 as Hammond hosts Northeast, Centennial visits Broadneck, Oakland Mills travels to Owings Mills and Reservoir heads to Archbishop Spalding. On Tuesday, Sept. 9, league play begins with all 12 public schools in action.
After the county welcomed seven new coaches last year, this fall will be much quieter. The county's lone new coach, though, is a notable one.
Michael Bossom, who coached Centennial to eight state championships between 1994 and 2005, returns to the Eagles after nine seasons coaching the Goucher College volleyball team. He takes over for his former assistant at Centennial, Larry Schofield, who steps down after seven seasons.
Schofield, who led the Eagles to the 2008 state championship, as well as state finals appearances in 2010 and 2012, said that he decided to take a break from high school coaching, and Bossom — who never left his position as a physical education teacher at Centennial — was looking to get back into high school coaching. Both Bossom and Schofield also coach with the Columbia Volleyball Club.
Rob Moy, Atholton's head coach and an assistant under Bossom at Centennial for several years, expects Bossom's return to Howard County to have an immediate impact.
"Bossom has a different way of spinning things," Moy said. "He's amazing."