This may be the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, but in Howard County girls basketball, it could be considered the Year of the Freshman. Nearly every varsity team has at least one freshman on its squad. Glenelg Country School and Chapelgate, which don't have junior varsity teams, each have five freshmen on varsity. Among the public schools, Atholton and Mt. Hebron are carrying four freshmen and Wilde Lake has three.
The coaches wouldn't keep them if they weren't good and if they weren't planning for the future.
However, it's not the teams with the most freshmen that are tapped as the teams to beat. That early season honor goes to Glenelg, River Hill, Oakland Mills and Howard.
Glenelg is the defending county and District V champion and returns all but one player from last year's team. The Gladiators, led by juniors Emily Russo and Sam Heisig, will be quick and will play a hounding defense. Russo was Glenelg's leader in scoring, assists and steals a year ago.
It would be a mistake to overlook Oakland Mills, which finished second to Glenelg last winter, and return Player of the Year Jasmine Hill and a strong supporting cast. The Scorpions have never won the county title.
Plan on River Hill improving on last year's 13-11 overall record and don't be surprised if the Hawks are in the county title hunt. There's history there. River Hill has won eight of the last 12 county titles.
Howard and Mt. Hebron will also help decide how the season shapes up. Don't forget that as the cliché goes, any team can win on any give night.
Realistically, last year was last year and the teams are ready for a fresh start.
The opening tap
Here's how the teams look as the season begins. Dec. 5 is the first play date; county games start Dec. 7.
2010-11 record: 10-9 county, 11-12 overall
Top players: Seniors Audi Vitagliano (F/G), Amy Weinberg (G) and Emily Pattillo (F/G).
What you need to know: The Raiders have seven seniors on the team; Vitagliano, Weinberg and Pattillo are four-year varsity players. Freshmen Sage Mayhew (G) and Kalere Calswell (F) may soon be in the starting lineup.
"We're a senior-oriented squad that has a mix of underclassmen who are also expected to contribute," coach Maureen Shacreaw said. "Team chemistry is important and there is a strong bond between the players as the upperclassmen have welcomed the newcomers to begin the season in a positive way."
With 14 players, Shacreaw said she is planning to "go with the mentality of trying to run" and wear opponents out. "I think we should be OK," she added.
2010-11 record: 11-8, 14-11
Top players: Seniors Rachel Benzing (F) and Sadie Rockefeller (F), sophomore Brittany Anderson (F).
What you need to know: The Eagles graduated five seniors from a team that reached the 3A regional finals. Benzing, who missed all of last season with injury, and Rockefeller will provide the senior leadership for first-year coach Bobby Macheel. The Eagles, 12-players strong, are young. Sophomores Mary Anderson, Sara Downing, Evana Pino and Alicia Hsieh join Brittany Anderson, who played varsity as a freshman. A pair of freshmen, Kimmy Eads and Anna Mitchell, are expected to see major playing time as the season progresses.
2010-11 record: 19-0, 24-2
Top players: Seniors Danielle Burris (G), Alissa Parker (G) and Mary Kittleman (G); juniors Emily Russo (G) and Sam Heisig (G).
What you need to know: The Gladiators return the key pieces of a team that won last year's county and District V championship. "The only teams we lost to were Urbana and Calvert and both of them were in the state finals," Glenelg coach Don Beall said.
Russo (14.2 ppg last year), Heisig (12.5) and Burris (9.5) give the Gladiators a solid scoring foundation. Russo was a Player of the Year candidate last year. Heisig led the county in 3-point shots made (44).
Mandy Bendix will be the first off the bench and Kristen Yaun provides the team's height.
"I think we're fairly quick and we're going to defend and defend and attack and shoot the three — there's no secret on that," Beall said. "If I can get them to step up and take charges, we will be really good."
2010-11 record: 0-19, 1-22
Top player: Junior Cambria Conley (G).
What you need to know: There is only one way for Hammond to go this season and that's up, but it still may be a slow process. With one senior, two juniors, eight sophomores and a freshman, the Golden Bears lack experience. Keyuana Griffin, a sophomore guard, is expected to be an impact player.
"We're new, very young, eager to learn and have fun and are hardworking," coach Raymona Reid said.
2010-11 record: 14-5, 20-6
Top players: Seniors Brittany Butler (G), April Kuhn (F) and Katja Randazzo (G); sophomores Anne Kinsey (G), Sydney Biniak (C) and Emma Hoesman (G).
What you need to know: Howard graduated six seniors from a team that reached the state semifinals and lost another player to transfer. "Seven of our first nine players from last year are gone," coach Scott Robinson said.
The Lions, who return five seniors, four juniors and five sophomores, may take some lumps this year but the team will be well schooled in fundamentals.
Butler, who has signed a National Letter of Intent with Loyola University Maryland, is the team's top returning player. She averaged 10.5 ppg last year.
"We have potential but we are very inexperienced," Robinson said. "We have tremendous enthusiasm and team chemistry. We have a very nice group of girls that are fun to work with."
2010-11 record: 4-15, 6-17
Top players: Seniors Mallory Gray (C) and Alexis Briscoe (G); junior Olivia Callan (G) and sophomore Imani Sanders (G).
What you need to know: Everybody's back for the Lightning and freshman Alana Ratcliffe and sophomore Katelyn Peterson, who sat out last year with an injury, have been added to the mix.
Briscoe (11.1 ppg) is the team's top returning scorer; Callan averaged nine points and nine rebounds a game. She and Sanders, a flashy point guard, are expected to have breakout seasons this year.
"This year's squad returns with a great deal of experience and is hungry to taste victory. So far they are working extremely hard and pushing each other," coach Kelli Cofield said.
2010-11 record: 7-12, 9-15
Top players: Seniors Nicole Grote (G) and Molly Fleming (G); junior Brooke Sharbaugh (G) and sophomores Jenna Bergquist (F) and Amanda Miller (G).
What you need to know: Girls basketball at Marriotts Ridge has been more about revolving than evolving. The Mustangs are on their third coach in four years, and players have also rotated in and out. Grote and Fleming are rejoining the team as seniors. Their athleticism will carry them until their basketball skills catch up. Sophomore Amanda Miller (G) is a transfer from Mount de Sales and is expected to contribute.
"We are a team of very quick, athletic girls who know the game well and play as a cohesive unit already this early in the season," first-year coach Kristen Reier said.
A sixth-year varsity team, the Mustangs are still looking for their first winning record. With six sophomores on varsity, that may be in their future.
2010-11 record: 11-8, 12-11
Top players: Senior Kelly Jones (G/F) and Knowlej Thomas (G) and sophomore Tianna Wallpher (G).
What you need to know: With three seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and four freshmen, the Vikings' talent is spread throughout the team. Jones (10.7 ppg last year), Thomas (10.4) and Wallpher have the scoring capability and will be the recipient of passes from point guard Megan Doherty, part of a talented freshman class.
"We're hard working, fast, athletic and young. Defense will be the key to our season and we need our upperclassmen to take the lead," coach Tony Bell said.
2010-11 record: 15-4, 18-6
Top players: Seniors Jasmine Hill (G), Patrice Jones (G), Nicole Twardowicz (F) and Kara Hight (G).
What you need to know: The Scorpions return Hill, the reigning Player of the Year, and a solid core of seniors, including guard Kayla Tullis. Hill has 966 career points and should score her 1,000th career point a few games into the season. Coach Seth Willingham is closing in on his 100th career victory.
Freshmen guards Tori Diggs and Fern Peters are expected to contribute.
Half of Oakland Mills' losses last year came to Glenelg, a trend the Scorpions hope to reverse.
"We should be experienced with some returners and good leadership. We need to stay disciplined," Willingham said. He promises that his team "will play hard for all 32 minutes."
2010-11 record: 11-8, 13-11
Top players: Senior Megan Fowler (PG); junior Candace Johnson (F); sophomores Zelor Massaquoi (F) and Blair Bonner (F).
What you need to know: Fowler, Massaquoi and Bonner are the Gators' only players with significant varsity experience, which means first-year coach Kyle Sullivan will have his work cut out for him. His team includes five sophomores and two freshmen. On the positive side, Sullivan was Reservoir's JV coach, so he has already coached some of the underclassmen.
Sophomore guards Tara Thompson and Keri Rager are likely to start. They were co-MVP's on Sullivan's JV team last year. Juniors Taylor Harrington and Jasmine Pickens were also major contributors to the JV and have moved up to varsity.
"We are young, athletic, have pretty good size, work hard and have a desire to improve," Sullivan said.
2010-11 record: 10-9, 13-11
Top players: Seniors Holly Sandler (G) and Alauna Jackson (F/C); juniors Megan Sterling (G), Vickie Rowe (F/G) and Jordan Masker (F); sophomores Jenna Collins (F/G) and Julia Collins (G).
What you need to know: The Hawks were already a solid team, but picked up a nice addition in Jackson, a transfer from Howard. She averaged 8.8 ppg and 6.3 rpg a year ago and will give River Hill a strong inside presence. Plus she was the county's top shot blocker (120). Sterling is the Hawks' top returning scorer (11 ppg) and junior Katie Arensmeier (F/G) rejoins the team after not playing last year.
Soma Umeozulu (C), Andrea Nichols (G), Lauren Jones (F/G), Tyler Triplett (G) and Colleen McKenna (G) round out the Hawks' roster.
"We're more experienced than last year," coach Teresa Waters said. "We have a deep bench, aggressive defense and we are eager."
2010-11 record: 2-17, 2-19
Top players: Junior Kourtney Harrison (F/C); sophomores Grayson Corbett (G) and Lindsey Williams (F/C).
What you need to know: Coach Caitlin Williams is still trying to turn the program in a positive direction. The Wildecats took their lumps last year and may again this year, especially since the top two scorers graduated.
Overall, the team is young — one senior, six juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen. Sophomore Ni'Jah Richardson, a transfer from Elizabeth Seton, is expected to contribute.
"We're young, aggressive and passionate," Williams said of her team.
Glenelg Country School
2010-11 record: 1-14 IAAM C, 1-16
Top players: Senior Abby Renko (G); juniors Hannah Harbold (G) and Ogechi Nwodim (F); sophomore Mallory Pappas (G/F).
What you need to know: The Dragons will be leaning heavily on their returning players Renko, Harbold, Nwodim and Pappas. The nine-player squad includes one sophomore and five freshmen. Glenelg Country has no JV team so the freshmen have to mature quickly for the team to be competitive.
Coach Dominique D'Amico expects freshmen Sabrina Deleonibus, Alexis Foxwell, Kendra Isaacs and Deja Hursey to contribute greatly.
"We have an exciting dynamic of great veteran leaders, along with freshmen who will add a lot of new energy to our program," D'Amico said.
2010-11 record: 7-8 IAAM C, 10-13
Top players: Junior Jen Yahiro (G); freshmen Casey Johnson (G/F) and Camile Keys (G/F).
What you need to know: Like Glenelg Country, Chapelgate has no junior varsity team to act as a feeder program. Therefore, the Yellowjackets are carrying a 15-player squad that includes three seniors, four juniors, three sophomores and five freshmen. Of the ninth-graders, Johnson and Keys are expected to make a strong impact because they can play different positions.
First-year coach Kortnie Smith describes her team as "the type that everyone underestimates, but when we play to our full potential, we are the team to look out for. (We're) something like the underdog that will rise."