Mt. Hebron's Zach Nicholas

The Vikings have been tough to figure, bringing back a lot of talent from a 2012 playoff team but starting the season 0-5. The offense finally came to life in Week 9, scoring 39 points against Oakland MIlls, which was 18 more than their previous best this season. That win boosted them past the Scorpions into this spot. They have a chance to finish the season with victories in four of their last five games. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / September 4, 2013)

Baltimore is a football town. From the Colts dynasty of the 1950s through the 1970s, the Redskins to the south, the two-time world champion Ravens, and the transplanted Steelers and Eagles fans from Pennsylvania, Marylanders have plenty of reasons to appreciate their football.

And while Maryland doesn't have 20,000-seat high school stadiums or dozens of five-star recruits every season, high school football in the Old Line State is a source of pride as well, with Howard County leading the way.

With River Hill's 2013 state championship — its fourth since 2007 — Howard County schools have now won state titles in three consecutive years. The Hawks return only four starters on each side of the ball, but turnover is nothing new in Clarksville, and coach Brian Van Deusen has plenty of talent, including first team all-county selections Cory Daniel (TE/LB) and Logan Kirby (NG/OG).

Atholton, under first-year coach John Swigart, has won 41 games in the past five seasons, second only to River Hill (62), with four straight playoff appearances. The Raiders will be led on offense by senior running back Isaac Murray, who rushed for 1,181 yards and eight touchdowns last season, most among returning players.

A new arrival on the list of contenders, Reservoir — which made the playoffs for the first time in school history last year behind defensive Player of the Year James Simms — is looking to continue its upward trend this year.

“We have several new players in new positions,” coach Bryan Cole said. “They are hopeful for a great season and realize there are no more teams out there that will overlook them because of their success last season.”

Mt. Hebron, which made the playoffs for the first time since 2003 last season, is in a similar boat. The Vikings return University at Buffalo recruit Zach Nicholas (WR/DB), one of the top two-way players in the state. Last year, Nicholas made 75 tackles, intercepted a pass for a TD, had three sacks, caught 21 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for more than 400 yards and seven more scores.

Throw traditional contenders Glenelg, Howard, Long Reach and Wilde Lake into the mix as well, and the 2013 season is shaping up to be a battle.

The season kicks off Friday night, Sept. 6, with all 12 local teams in action. Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake will debut their new turf fields this fall, joining Atholton, Hammond and Howard, which had their turf fields installed last year.

Follow @ACHoCoSports on Twitter for in-game updates every week, and check explorehoward.com every Saturday morning for full results.

New coaches

Four new coaches will make their debut this fall.

At Atholton, John Swigart — a former Towson and Howard University assistant, and a coach with the Western Howard County Warhawks — takes over for Kyle Schmitt, who is now the head coach at Archbishop Spalding. Schmitt was 38-9 in four seasons at Atholton, making the playoffs all four years.

Schmitt's defensive coordinator at Atholton, Justin Carey, is the new coach at Hammond, replacing Dan Makosy. Carey played linebacker at Bowie State from 2005-2009 and now teaches Business Education at Hammond High.

“My main focus is on getting as many student-athletes into college as possible,” he said. “I am very passionate at what I do and try to develop young athletes to become leaders in society.”

Makosy led Hammond to a 24-18 record in his four years, including a co-county title and regional finals appearance in 2010.

At Long Reach, Jamie Willis takes over for longtime head coach Pete Hughes, who is now the defensive coordinator at Southwestern High in Baltimore. Hughes coached the Lightning to a career record of 109-64. Long Reach made the playoffs in 1997, 2004 and 2005, when it also won the county title. Willis, who grew up in Ohio, played tight end for Youngstown State, winning a national title as a senior in 1991. He was an assistant coach at several colleges and Long Reach High, under Hughes, before becoming head coach at Pikesville five years ago.

Marcus Lewis is the new head coach at Marriotts Ridge, relieving Tom Minard, who steps down after two seasons. Lewis was the Howard County Player of the Year as a senior at Oakland Mills in 1988, before playing running back for the University of Delaware. He began coaching at Oakland Mills in 1996, serving as defensive coordinator for the Scorpions' 1998 state championship team under head coach Ken Hovet.

* Returning first-team all-county; # Returning second-team all-county.

Atholton Raiders

2012 record: 9-1 county, 10-2 overall (Class 3A East regional finalist)

Last playoff appearance: 2012 (3A East regional finalist); Last state championship: NA; Five-year record: 41-16 (.719).

Coach: John Swigart, first season

Returning offensive starters: 4; Returning defensive starters: 6.

Top players (offense): Seniors Isaac Murray# (RB), Marquise Findlay-Smith (RB), Lamarre Whitlock (WR), C.J. Williams (WR) and Byran Barney (WR).

Top players (defense): Seniors Cody Stolar# (LB), Isaac Boateng (LB), Graham Broschart (LB), Jordan Mason (DB) and Bryan Gsell (DB).

Key losses: RB/WR Pat Mullens, WR/LB Brandon Anthony, OL Zach Plotkin, WR Keyon Pinnock, QB Luke Casey, LB Jamal Washington, CB Hunter Carter-Rimbach, DE Godfrey Ovia, S David Bell, DT Ben Mathews and LB Graham Kantor.

Scouting report: For the Raiders, it's new coach, new players, same expectations. The program has been on an upward trend for the last four years, and has designs on continuing its rise. Murray is the league's top returning rusher, and Barney (Marriotts Ridge), Whitlock (Reservoir) and Williams (Wilde Lake) are key transfers. The Mustangs will miss the multitalented Barney, who caught 25 passes for 244 yards, made 43 tackles and intercepted three passes last year as a junior. Findlay-Smith, with nine catches for 144 yards and three TDs last year, is a talented receiver and runner. The linebacking corps returns several experienced starters, led by Stolar. Mason, who intercepted three passes last year, is also a top kick returner. Team unity will be a key, as Atholton won five games by three points or less last year.

Key number: 269. Combined tackles by the quartet of Stolar (110), Gsell (71), Boateng (47) and Broschart (41) last season.

Centennial Eagles

2012 record: 3-7, 3-7

Last playoff appearance: 1980 (Class B semifinalist); Last state championship: NA; Five-year record: 14-36 (.280).

Coach: Todd Kriner, third season

Returning offensive starters: 9; Returning defensive starters: 9.

Top players (offense): Seniors Tyler Morris (QB), Walter Fletcher# (RB/DB), Chase Conley# (WR/DB), Quinn Western (RB/DB) and Damon Reaves# (WR/S).

Top players (defense): Seniors Michael Price (LB/RB) and Anthony Saunders (DE/TE); junior Patrick McKinnis (DB); sophomore Austin Kraisser (LB/RB).

Key losses: DE Alex Eason, LB Kyle Homens and DL Chris Sexton.

Scouting report: The Eagles regularly played only six seniors last year, so an improvement on last year’s three wins is definitely in order. Whether that improvement means a .500 season, or something more, will depend on the play and leadership of this year’s senior class. On offense, Centennial is fairly stacked at the skill positions. Morris (654 passing yards, 6 TDs), Fletcher (840 rushing yards, 5 TDs), Conley (318 receiving yards, 4 TDs) and Western (28 kick returns, 670 yards) were all team leaders at their positions last year, while Reaves led the team in sacks (3) and interceptions (4).

Key number: 103. Combined points allowed in a pair of losses to River Hill (56-0) and Long Reach (47-22) last year, almost 40 percent of Centennial’s total points allowed on the season.

Glenelg Gladiators

2012 record: 6-4, 6-4

Last playoff appearance: 2011 (2A South regional runner-up); Last state championship: NA; Five-year record: 32-21 (.604).

Coach: Butch Schaffer, eighth season

Returning offensive starters: 6; Returning defensive starters: 6.

Top players (offense): Seniors David Brookhart* (WR/DB), Jared Jacoby (RB/DB) and Pat Laport (OL/DL); junior David Robbins (OL/DL).

Top players (defense): Seniors Jordan Alexander# (DL/OL) and Craig Burris (DL/OL); junior Matt Baxter (LB/WR).

Key losses: TE/DE Ben Carta, QB/DB Mark Darden, LB/RB Nick Crabill, DL/OL Sean Twigg and LB/RB Drew Dziwulski.

Scouting report: The Gladiators have two of the top playmakers in the league, in Brookhart (759 yards from scrimmage, 8 TDs) and Jacoby (522, 3), so moving the ball on offense should be fun to watch. The Gladiators line is stacked, with second-teamer Alexander (62 tackles, 8.5 sacks) leading the way. The trio of Alexander, LaPort and Robbins average 6'2" and weigh in at a combined 770 pounds.

Key number: 10. Passes broken up by Brookhart last year. He intercepted four more, so teams will likely be discouraged from throwing in his direction this season.

Hammond Golden Bears

2012 record: 5-5, 5-5