Alli Bluhm

Mt. Hebron junior Alli Bluhm led the county with a .600 batting average last spring and was the only sophomore to make the first-team all-county squad. She is one of six returning starters for a Vikings' team expected to challenge for a county title. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / March 20, 2013)

The teams roll off the tip of their tongues almost instinctively. With Glenelg and Howard having combined to win each of the last three softball county titles, conversations among coaches regarding the favorites heading into this spring seem to almost always start with those two squads — neither of whom has finished outside the top four in the standings since 2010.

“We have a lot of respect for Howard and Glenelg … they’re very tough teams that have been there,” Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar said. “They have good kids, good pitching and good coaching. It’s not easy winning a county title, so there’s something to be said for knowing what it takes to get to that level.”

Glenelg, last year’s county champions, returns Player of the Year Leah Allen to go along with a reliable pitcher in Mandy Bendix and a couple of second-team all-county performers, Colleen Regan and Toni Pritchard. Howard graduated 11 seniors from last season’s team that tied for second in the standings and had won the county title in 2011, but has the leadership and young talent to remain among the elite. Infielder Katie Wilkinson, a returning first-team honoree, is one of those Lions’ seniors.

The truth is, though, while the Gladiators and Lions certainly figure to be in the mix, this spring features plenty of challengers to the throne. Reservoir is coming off its best season in program history, having won 20 games and a region title in 2012, and Mt. Hebron brings back four all-county players from a squad that went 15-5 a year ago.

Junior Alli Bluhm, the only sophomore to make first-team all county last season, is one of the leaders of a Vikings’ squad some are picking as the preseason favorite.

Then there’s Hammond, Atholton, Marriotts Ridge and River Hill, all of which have been mentioned as potential contenders after finishing tightly bunched in the middle of the county last spring. Throw in a sleeper like Centennial, with pitcher Emily Bowman returning from a back injury, and you have the potential for a season full of intrigue.

“The past couple of years we’ve seen a lot more parity in the county and I expect that trend to continue this season,” Hammond coach Brad Speierman said. “I know there are a number of freshman around the county that will no doubt help build up some of the teams that lost key seniors from last year.”

There are early season tests scattered along the way for all the county’s contending squads, but none stands out more than a meeting between Glenelg and Howard on the second day of the season, March 22. Other highlights include the early-season play day at the Bachman Sports Complex featuring all 12 of the county’s public schools squaring off against teams from Anne Arundel County on March 23.

The showdown between the two counties is in its third year of existence.

First pitch

Here’s a glimpse at all of the county’s teams as the season gets underway:

Atholton

2012 record: 9-8 county, 9-9 overall

Coach: Bobby Baxter

Key players: Senior Melanie Berger (C); juniors Jamie Cardea (OF), Alex Herschman (P, 1B), Nikki Martin (SS), Kaya Roberts (1B/P), Maya Schwartz (2B); sophomores Amanda Petersen (3B) and Gina D’Asto (OF).

What you need to know: Baxter takes over an extremely young team that features just one senior. But Berger, that lone senior for the Raiders, and Schwartz fit the role of captains well and are the ideal duo to lead this group. “They clearly have the respect of their teammates and set a great example in practices,” Baxter said. “They have set an immediate tone for the season.”

The truth is, though, that even with its youth, Atholton still has eight girls with starting experience on its roster. That nucleus already having had a chance to build chemistry last year is something Baxter is banking on being an area of strength as things get going this spring.

Pitching and defense could be a strong point as well. Herschman is expected to be the team’s main pitcher.

“Alex has worked extremely hard in the off season,” Baxter said. “She comes into the spring with a positive outlook and exudes a quiet confidence.”

New additions to the varisty squad, Becky Schwab, Melissa Porras, Danielle Dolbow and freshman Miranda Thompson, are expected to contribute as well.