Players from River Hill High School teach Howard County Times sports editor Brent Kennedy how to hit fastpitch softball and then play a game to see who can hit the most pitches. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Group video)

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

And if you are Glenelg, coming off an undefeated regular season and a second straight county championship, the number of capable teams clamoring at the opportunity to be the one that derails the budding dynasty is a lengthy one.

Yet, as Gladiators coach Ray Gerstner points out, no one gets to the top by shying away from a challenge.

"The girls are definitely excited to get out there," said Gerstner, who is beginning his third year leading the program. "I think sometimes when you have the kind of program we do, it puts a little bit of backwards pressure on them in that they feel like they have to win. But I also think it gives them confidence.

"I want them to have that chip on their shoulder and that mentality that they are going to go out and prove themselves."

Glenelg, which graduated three first-team all-county players, certainly has enough key personnel back to make a run at defending its spot atop the county. Faith Kujawa and Toni Pritchard are both returning all-county corner infielders, while Colleen Regan pitched her way to a 14-1 record and a 2.29 ERA as a junior.

The key becomes getting some of last year's unsung heroes — seniors Brooke Redmond, Morgan Perry and Grace Daigle — to step further into the spotlight.

"They were there last year and they were all key contributors," Gerstner said. "Sometimes you wonder who are going to step up as your leaders, but honestly there are so many leaders on this team. They are all trying to fight toward our goals together."

Staying together will be key to navigating through what is shaping up to be a very talented county. Of the 29 players that made all-county first or second team last season, 19 are returning to their respective squads this spring.

Behind Glenelg, there was a ton of parity a year ago, and those next five or six teams seem poised to take steps forward as they hit the field for the first games of the regular season March 21.

River Hill, which went 17-5 overall and advanced to the 3A state semifinals in 2013, returns eight starters. Howard, which tied River Hill for second place in the county last spring at 13-4, brings back six starters and three of them made all-county last year.

There's also a lot of buzz surrounding Mt. Hebron and Atholton, both of which finished tied for fourth at 12-5 in county play. Mt. Hebron has six returning starters, including Evvie Buehlman (county-best .584 batting average) and the team's other top three hitters in terms of average. Atholton, meanwhile, had just one senior on last year's team and brings back star pitcher Alex Herschman, who led the county with 159 strikeouts last spring.

Atholton coach Bobby Baxter said he personally wouldn't be surprised to see a new team on top by the end of the season.

"I've had the privilege to coach a lot of Howard County athletes and based on that experience, I would say that if you want to win the county title this year, you have to go through Howard or Mt. Hebron," Baxter said.

Standout pitching is also what has Reservoir and Centennial thinking big, as they try to push back into the upper tier. Reservoir's Emily Wang and Centennial's Emily Bowman both are coming off seasons where they were named to the second-team all-county squad.

The truth is, 10 of the county's 12 teams bring back their top pitcher from a year ago. And several of the top teams — Mt. Hebron, Howard and River Hill — bring back two pitchers apiece that logged at least 50 innings and had an ERA under 3.00.

Long Reach, which is led by sophomore pitcher Isa Carunungan and the return of senior Christina Doshim, is among the bottom tier teams from a year ago expected to take significant steps forward.

"If you ask me, the county is overall stronger this year than last year," Howard coach Chuck Rice said. "There was undoubtedly talent last year, but the depth this year is what makes it so tough. Realistically there are as many 10 teams that can win against any one on any given night and I would definitely say pitching has something to do with that."

Chapelgate, which is coming off a 9-3 season in the MIAA B Conference, has pitching on its side as well. The Yellowjackets duo of Bethanne Venkatesan and Phoebe Cleaver give the team arguably the best one-two combination in the conference, and should allow Chapelgate to challenge McDonogh for the top spot in the standings.

All of the county teams will be busy right out of the gates, with each of the 12 public schools slated to play three games in four days to open the year. Included in there is the annual Howard County vs Anne Arundel County showcase event on March 22, featuring 12 match-ups throughout the day at the Bachman Sports Complex.

For a full team-by-team breakdown of all the county’s squads heading into the season, CLICK HERE