Marriotts Ridge's soccer program has been here before.
Hit hard by graduation, surrounded by question marks on the defensive end of the field and faced with the pressure of being the defending state champs, this year's squad needs to look back only three seasons to find a point of reference.
That 2010 Mustangs' team, which, like this season's group, found itself bringing back only two full-time starters, found a way to reload instead of rebuild. The offense clicked, players slipped seamlessly into new roles and the team dominated on its way to the second of what has now blossomed into a state-record tying four straight state titles.
Now Marriotts Ridge coach Kevin Flynn is trying to dip into the well one more time.
"We haven't talked about it yet, but we will talk about it because there are a lot of similarities (between the teams)," Flynn said following the first day of practice this fall. "We want to make sure everyone knows that it still can be done. We still have a lot of talent. We've got a lot of good young guys and we want to keep everybody confident."
With a completely new back line on defense, there will be some extra pressure on the team's offense to put goals on the board. The good news is that, with the return of Amir Najib (11 goals, 4 assists) and Jeff Kammerer (8 and 3), that shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Having other guys with championship experience under their belts, like Khalil Anderson, Andre Chen and Kwame Owusu-Boaitey, should also help bring the younger players along during the first month of the regular season.
"I'm prepared for the fact that there may be some games where we take our lumps … the learning curve will definitely be a little different this season," Flynn said.
As far as the rest of the county is concerned, though, the Mustangs are still on top until someone knocks them off.
"As with any team coming off a 17-0 season like they had, they're up there until someone comes up and gets them," River Hill coach Matt Shagogue said. "They've set that bar that everyone is shooting for."
Shagogue's Hawks' squad has all the pieces in place to make a run at this year's crown. Seven starters are back from a team that went 10-4-3 a season ago, including two of the county's best offensive players in Jake Turney (8 goals, 5 assists) and Zach Riso (11 and 8). Derek Farley joins those two to round out River Hill's captains this fall.
Reservoir brings back plenty of talent as well from its team that won last year's 3A state title. Emilio Rodas and Michael Peprah form one of the area's most dangerous duos on set pieces.
There's plenty of elite talent elsewhere as well, with five other teams returning at least one all-county player. Atholton (Jack Jacobs) and Wilde Lake (Zach Smythe) are among the squads bringing back a first-team guy.
Don't sleep on Oakland Mills, led by talented senior striker Hans Kouame (7 goals, 5 assists in 2012), or Glenelg, which brings back all-county defender Bryce Helensky and standout goalie Zack Haussler from a team that made huge strides last year.
Mt. Hebron's another team that consistently finds a way to put itself among the county's top tier and, despite graduating last year's leading scorer Emmanuel Wright (36 points), has the talent to be in the mix once again.
"Don't be surprised if you see a lot of ties this year … there's a large group of teams that aren't separated by that much," Oakland Mills coach Don Shea said.
The playoffs this season will have an added twist with each region being divided up into two sections.
Howard, which will be participating in the Class 4A North region for the first time, is sectioned off with four Montgomery County schools.
The eight county schools in 3A East are split up, with Centennial, Long Reach and Mt. Hebron joining a trio of Baltimore City schools in Section I. Atholton, Glenelg, Reservoir, River Hill and Wilde Lake are in Section II.
The other three county schools — Hammond, Marriotts Ridge and Oakland Mills — are in Section I of the Class 2A South region. That means an all-Howard County region final is no longer possible.