There was an infectious energy coming from the various practice fields and courts around Howard County Wednesday morning.
As public school athletic teams kicked off tryouts, the reality that summer is coming to a close and fall is right around the corner was as evident as ever. And some programs — like Oakland Mills boys soccer — were so eager to kick off the new season that they didn't even wait for sunrise, beginning tryouts at 6 a.m.
Howard County Coordinator of Athletics John Davis knows the feeling well that comes along with opening day, having coached football at Glenelg for 10 years before moving into athletic administration.
"The anticipation of the kids and the coaches is the big thing, everyone is champing at the bit to get started," Davis said. "For me, I kind of miss some of it … not being out on the field every day anymore or getting up at six in the morning ready to get going. But the buzz is still there around the county. You can definitely feel it."
Teams are limited to no longer than three hours of practice a day. Exactly how each coach decides to use that time and the method with which they conduct tryouts differ from program to program.
The main goal, however, regardless of sport, is to evaluate the players — especially ones that are not returners from the previous year — as fairly and efficiently as possible.
Making the most of limited time is especially critical for the county's golf programs, considering that several find themselves in the unique predicament of playing their first official matches before school even begins.
Things are particularly tight over at Marriotts Ridge this fall. The Mustangs, whose boys squad is the three-time defending state champion in 1A/2A, won't even have its first tryout date until Aug. 17 because of a variety of schedule complications. The following day, on Aug. 18, the team is scheduled to play its first match against Howard.
"All of our kids coming out for the team play summer golf, so we really have to count on that as their preseason basically," said Marriotts Ridge coach Mark Dubbs. "It's a quick start, no question about it, but when you are working with trying to find availability for all these different (golf) courses, it's the reality of the situation. You just count on the kids being ready to go from Day 1."
Fortunately, the Mustangs do return all four starters from last year on the boys side, along with two heavily experienced players on its girls team. Factor in some quality reserves and Dubbs acknowledges his program is equipped as well as anyone to handle an accelerated preseason.
Howard's girls, who went undefeated on the way to capturing last year's county championship, are in a similar spot to Marriotts Ridge in terms of bringing everyone back. The thing coach Josh McGoun is hoping to do over the next week or so is track down some depth — one or two players to round out a squad that had just three members a season ago.
"The girls have proven they can do it with three, but obviously if we can add a fourth that just makes us even stronger," McGoun said. "We have a lot of prospects that haven't quite panned out yet, but there's hope. Either way, with the way our three returners have improved and worked on their games during the offseason, I'm extremely confident in this group. We have really high goals once again."
While golf begins competition early, the first official play date for the rest of the public school fall sports is Sept. 4.
As everyone gets going, here's a snapshot look at how last fall's county champions are shaping up and what some of them are looking for during these first few days of tryouts and practice:
River Hill put together an unbeaten season last fall on the way to county, region and state titles. This year's squad brings back a strong core, including reigning Player of the Year Mike Heitzmann, to try and make a run at repeating.
As the team got going Wednesday, coach Matt Shagogue said he was pleased with how the team looked on the field but was even more impressed with his guys' attitude and energy right from the get go.
"To see that enthusiasm from the kids today, a group of them showed up even before I did more than an hour before practice was supposed to start, that's what has me excited," Shagogue said. "Last year was a special year, but you can see already that none of these guys are resting on that. Having these kids showing up ready to work … that's going to go a long way."
River Hill's girls soccer team captured a state title as well last fall, its third straight.
This year's squad will have to make up for the graduation of several stars, along with an injury to senior Jessie Hopkins (co-Player of the Year in 2014) that will keep her out of action this season. But, according to coach Brian Song, the goals are always the same when things get going each fall.
"My excitement never changes, it's there every year," Song said. "That first day, seeing the new kids coming in and getting to see how much the old kids have improved and grown, it's always exciting. I know this year, because of a couple injuries, we are going to have a very different look. But what we are trying to do won't change."
Fresh off a 12-1 season, during which it captured a county and 4A North region title, Howard football hopes to keep expectations set on building upon success from 2014. The Lions graduated 28 seniors, including Howard County Defensive Player of the Year Winston DeLattiboudere, but coach Bruce Strunk says his team should be formidable with the likes of running back/wide receiver Malik Anderson, quarterback Casey Crawford and offensive lineman Steve McNair in the fold.
"We lost a lot, but the young kids — they know what the expectations are. They raised the bar for the program last year. They've got big shoes to fill," Strunk said. "(Offensively), we're better in some positions and not as good in others ... it depends how quickly we can get going. Defensively, we return half our starters."
Over the last several years, Glenelg volleyball has been the team to beat in Howard County. The 2014 county champions and state finalists may have graduated Howard County Player of the Year Sarah Girard, but sister Rachael Girard returns to keep the Gladiators' expectations set on staying on top and winning another county title.
"We have a good returning core coming back," Glenelg coach Jason Monjes said. "We have a lot of returning girls – eight seniors from what I recall – that were on the state finals team from last year. So we're hoping some of that experience will tap in and kind of just be a motivator. ... We have a lot of good players in terms of ball control and stuff like that, but our biggest issue will be who will be our go-to hitter."
Three teams — Atholton, Glenelg and Marriotts Ridge — tied for the county field hockey title last fall. In that little round-robin, each team went 1-1.
However, the past is the past and the present is now, which is another way to say that a three-way tie is unlikely.
Atholton coach Martie Dyer thinks it will be close, though.
Each of the defending champions comes into 2015 with a different composition.
Atholton graduated Player of the Year Jen Bleakney and Glenelg graduated forwards Mia Astran, Hannah Doughty and Megan Taylor. Marriotts Ridge had three players on all-county first team, but none is returning. Maddie Courtney and Enya McGarry graduated and Lexi Souder is out for the season as she recovers from shoulder surgery.
While the three teams will have a different look, the players have spent the summer getting to know one another. Atholton and Glenelg did summer conditioning and Marriotts Ridge's players attended a team camp that the Mustangs hosted. One of the camp instructors was Torrie Albini, a former US national team member.
For a number of reasons, the season will be a special one for Glenelg coach Ginger Kincaid.
Kincaid retired from teaching last spring and will be handing the Glenelg field hockey program over to former Oakland Mills coach Nikki Trunzo, who is now on Glenelg's teaching staff.
"This will be my last hurrah," Kincaid said. "Nikki will take it over next year, but I will still try to coach in some capacity."
Glenelg needs five more victories to give Kincaid 400 wins in her field hockey coaching career.
It was a clean sweep last fall for River Hill's boys and girls cross country teams, as both captured county and state titles.
The top couple finishers from those squads during the postseason meets have graduated, but the foundation for success remains. As coach Paul Hugus points out, now it's simply the next group of runners turn to step to the forefront.
"We have good teams coming back, definitely some key contributors from last year ready to take that next step. But we also need to find some pieces behind them," Hugus said. "The boys, in particular, are going to be a much younger squad. Overall, though, there's definitely going to be that same excitement and our numbers are still really huge so that helps."
The number of freshmen coming out for the team was particularly encouraging for Hugus.
"We probably have one of the bigger classes of interested freshmen, with almost 30 kids out," he said. "It's nice to have that interest, kids wanting to be a part of the program and help try to continue that tradition that Earl (Lauer) has worked so hard to build over the years and that we have worked along with him to develop and maintain."
Carol Gralia contributed to this story.