Over the last five years, Howard County has seen its share of high school athletic success.
In that time, a state champion team or individual has emerged in nearly every sport.
Mt. Hebron girls basketball captured the 2A state title in 2008, and though some squads have come close, more than half a decade has passed since another Howard County girls basketball program has hoisted that championship trophy.
Last season, River Hill almost ended that title drought — taking an early 10-point lead in the championship game before falling just short against defending 3A champion Aberdeen.
This winter, with a multitude of talented teams, the 2013-14 season may finally be the year someone brings a title back to Howard County. Strength of schedule for the 12 public schools could prove to be a challenge, as nearly everyone has a chance to take down a few top teams. Whoever makes it out of county play with the fewest blemishes could be primed for success on the state level.
"History shows that River Hill has been successful year in and year out," Long Reach coach Kelli Cofield said of the county's girls basketball outlook. "But the middle-of-the-pack schools are beginning to make their way to the top, so this year is going to be exciting."
Though the Hawks graduated last year's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Player of the Year in Megan Sterling, the return of twins Jenna and Julia Collins — both second-team all-county selections — should be able to fill the void.
"(Julia and Jenna) have played an intricate part in our success the past three years," said veteran coach Teresa Waters. "They have played in the shadows of others when they have done all the little things."
The sisters led the team in rebounds and ranked in the top-three in assists and steals, while also finishing in the top-five on the team in scoring last season.
While coaches across the county agree that River Hill is not to be taken lightly, Reservoir, Howard and Mt. Hebron are all on the verge of vying for a county crown as well.
Senior Zelor Massaquoi averaged 12.8 points per game for the Gators last season. Guards Keri Rager (second-team all-county) and Tara Thompson also return, making Reservoir one of the most experienced teams in the league.
Confident in his squad's chances at a county title, coach Kyle Sullivan said the Gators are ready to take the next step.
"We've been knocking on the door the past two seasons, and this is the season where I expect us to have the best shot," he said. "As long as we are able to stay healthy, I think we will create mismatch problems all around the county."
Don't count Howard out as a possible contender either, especially with coach Scott Robinson in charge. After all, it was Robinson that led that 2008 Mt. Hebron team to the county's last state championship. Last winter, he nearly found his way back to the state tournament, when his Lions fell short against River Hill in the 3A East regional final. Now in the 4A classification, new challenges await.
First-team all-county center Sydney Biniak will look to improve on her county-leading 10.4 rebounds per game from last season. Seniors Emma Hoesman and Anne Kinsey will only add to the Lions' potent roster. Overall, four starters return from last year's 21-4 team. Robinson said he isn't counting out anybody, even if experience is on his side.
"There's a lot of parity in our league," he said.
Mt. Hebron coach Tony Bell said his team's game against Howard will be "huge," considering the Lions won all three of last year's match-ups. The Vikings return first-team all-county junior forward Nia Crump, who averaged 8.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Bell said he expects junior guard Megan Konig and sophomore center Gabby Green to make significant impacts on the floor as well.
Five coaches take over for their first season with their respective teams.