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Championship programs aren't built over night. Establishing tradition, winning experience and grooming young talent is a process that takes years of groundwork and patience.

But once a program is built, as Howard and Glenelg softball have proven, the rewards are tremendous.

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Over the last five years, it has been either the Lions or Gladiators that have finished atop the standings as county champions at the end of the regular season. Perhaps more impressive is that, even in rebuilding years for the two programs during that stretch, neither team has finished lower than fourth place.

So as this season begins, with everyone beginning with a fresh slate, the question is being posed once again — is this the year someone knocks the perennial powerhouses from their perch?

Mt. Hebron and River Hill, two senior-laden teams, are certainly in position to get the job done.

The early consensus among county coaches is that the Vikings and Hawks are the favorites heading into this spring. Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar, who won a county championship with Long Reach in 2006, says his team has been following the formula to assemble a winner since he took over seven years ago.

"It's a long process. It starts with getting the girls to play in the summer, getting them to go to the indoor hitting centers in the winter and overall making that year-round commitment to doing what it takes to raise that bar," Struhar said. "This year, there are definitely a couple teams that have built to that point, ourselves included. We have a really nice nucleus of kids that know what it takes to reach the highest level.

"But, with that said, you can never count out Howard and Glenelg because they have built those foundations to the point where they reload instead of rebuild."

River Hill coach Marni Rosenbaum, whose squad features nine seniors this spring, says there is a mix of pressure and excitement that comes with having a team capable of competing for a crown on the county and state levels.

"There's definitely a little bit of that pressure that comes with knowing this is the last chance for the seniors, but as a coach I also see the anxiousness to get out there and get going," Rosenbaum said. "They have the game experience, both here at River Hill and also in travel ball, and they have put the time in. Now it's just a matter of being focused every day and letting the rest take care of itself."

River Hill has three all-county players back in the fold.

Outfielder Courtney Colosimo was a first-team selection last year and provides a terrific ability to get on base from her lead-off position. Kinsey Johnson, a third baseman headed to play at Virginia Tech next year that led the team with a .434 batting average as a junior, and pitcher Kristy Selby also return after making second team.

In truth, Selby — along with fellow senior pitcher Sabrina Curtiss — may be the most important piece of the Hawks' puzzle. River Hill's pitching duo each posted ERAs of 2.44 or less last spring and helped the team win 15 games. And, according to Rosenbaum, county championship runs start with pitching.

"You look at all the teams that win, they all have one thing in common: great pitching," she said. "The last team other than Howard or Glenelg to win was Hammond (in 2009) and they had one of the best pitchers to ever come through Howard County in Stephanie Speierman."

If pitching is indeed the key, then it's no wonder that Mt. Hebron figures to be in the driver's seat.

The Vikings bring back senior Maddie Bennett (9-1, 1.21 ERA last spring) and junior Evvie Buehlman (9-3, 1.21 ERA) to anchor their pitching staff. Each of them was among the top three in the county last season in earned run average.

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Struhar says they've gotten even better.

"I tell you what, they've really matured even from last year … both of them," Struhar said. "They are the backbone of our team. We have some great bats, no doubt about it, but when those bats go cold those two are going to be what keeps us in games."

Buehlman is a force with the bat as well, posting county-leading numbers for batting average (.561), hits (37) and doubles (12). Throw in returners Stephanie Bluhm, Rachel Cadigan and Rylee Kinsella — each who hit .429 or better with double-digit runs and RBI — and it should once again be a high-powered offense.

As for Howard, which won last year's county championship with a 16-1 record, there was certainly a significant amount of talent lost to graduation. All three of the team's first-team players last spring, including Player of the Year Kayli Paugh, were seniors.

But coach Chuck Rice says the cupboard certainly isn't bare, led by returning junior infielder Berit Batterton (second-team all-county).

"We don't have the squad that we had the last six or seven years, but we are still returning five starters that are going to be the glue for us," Rice said. "We've been in this situation before and reloaded very quickly, so we know the system here works."

Glenelg, which went 13-4 in county play last spring, has five returning starters as well. Two of them — infielders Toni Pritchard and Sharon Mielke — are seniors that have been integral parts of the varsity squad since they were freshmen.

Elsewhere, Reservoir (9-7 in county play in 2014) has tremendous potential to make a jump into the county's upper tier. The Gators have seven starters back, including senior pitcher Emily Wang. She has been the team's workhorse on the mound for several years and led the county last year with 147 innings pitched. Offensively, Wang's battery mate — catcher Anna Bennett — returns after leading the team with a .426 average as a junior.

The middle county pack is incredibly intriguing as well. Atholton was a top five team last spring and, despite losing a strong senior core, has returning first-teamer Amanda Petersen back to lead the way.

Then there's the trio of Centennial, Long Reach and Marriotts Ridge, all which won five or more county games a season ago and bring back at least six returning starters.

"All of the teams are going to be competitive this year," Glenelg coach Ray Gerstner said. "We always look forward to our Howard match-up, but the (rest of the) competition seems to be getting better every year."

In the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference, Chapelgate figures to be in the hunt for a championship. The Yellowjackets return eight of nine starters that made its first-ever trip to the B Conference finals last season.

Returning IAAM all-stars Bethanne Venkatesan, Phoebe Cleaver and Gabby Rowan are all poised for huge seasons.

The start of the season for the public schools is slated for March 20, weather permitting. The annual District V Softball showcase event between Howard and Anne Arundel County is scheduled for the following day on Saturday March 21 at the Bachman Sports Complex. All 12 Howard County public schools will be in attendance.

As the season is set to get underway, here is a snapshot look at all the teams:

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Atholton

2014 record: 10-6 county, 11-9 overall

Coach: Bob Baxter

Key players: Seniors Danielle Dolbow (OF) and Amanda Petersen (C/SS); junior Miranda Thompson (IF); sophomore Allison Orlosky (IF).

What you need to know: The Raiders, on the back of all-county pitcher Alex Herschmann, have posted back-to-back season with double-digit county victories. This year's team, however, has just four starters returning and thus will be looking to establish a new identity.

Petersen, an all-county shortstop moving to the catcher position, and Dolbow, an outfielder that made all-county as a sophomore, are both great pieces to build around. Those two have been named captains. "They work hard, have travel-level experience and have played for me at a high level the two years I've coached here," coach Baxter said.

The other returning starters are Thompson (14 runs scored in 2014) and Orlosky (12 RBI as a freshman).

But there's also potential elsewhere, with senior Jenny Mathews getting an opportunity to be the team's starting pitcher. Also helping on the mound will be freshman Patty Drumheller. Baxter added to keep an eye on sophomore infielder Bethy Medina.

"The strength of the squad on paper would be our offense. I feel like we have the ability to put the ball in play and make things interesting," Baxter said.

Centennial

2014 record: 6-8, 8-11

Coach: Katie Grimm

Key players: Seniors Jordan Burk (OF), Brita Hawtof (IF), Josefine Jensen (P) and Sammy Kastner (C); junior Emily Davis (2B)

What you need to know: There are seven returning starters and coach Katie Grimm said she could legitimately have as many as five or six captains if she wanted to. "We have a lot of girls on the team with tremendous leadership experience … which is a great place to be as a coach," she said.

As it is, Burk, Jensen and Davis will be the captains. Burk, an all-county outfielder that was the team's top hitter last year with a .426 average, and Jensen, who will take over the pitching duties for the graduated Emily Bowman, are returning captains. Then Davis, a junior second baseman, will be the vocal leader of the infield.

Kastner, meanwhile, has "great instincts behind the plate" at catcher and Hawtof will be playing a key role at shortstop. Another girl to keep an eye on is junior first baseman Emily Allen, who racked up an impressive 22 RBI last spring.

Grimm says every game will be important, but particularly points to a tough stretch in mid April with four straight games against Mt. Hebron, Atholton, Glenelg and Marriotts Ridge as a great test for her group. She's hoping experience will pay big dividends.

"Because we are returning a lot of players, I feel that our team has great chemistry," Grimm said. "All the girls work hard for themselves and for each other."

Glenelg

2014 record: 13-4, 16-7

Coach: Ray Gerstner

Key players: Seniors Sharon Mielke (2B), Toni Pritchard (3B), Breanne Smith (OF) and Claire Swan (SS); junior Alison Wilcox (1B/OF).

What you need to know: The Gladiators have five starters back and four of them are infielders, creating a nice backbone for the team. "The strength of our team will be our defense. I'm very confident in my returning infield and our returning leadership in the outfield," coach Ray Gerstner said.

Pritchard and Mielke are both four-year starters that hit over .300 last season and scored 15 or more runs apiece. Swan is a three-year varsity player herself.

Smith, meanwhile, finished last year on a tear on the way to a team-best .419 batting average and Wilcox smacked the second-most home runs in the county last season (4). So there's definitely some punch to the offense. The key will be consistency and making up for the loss of all-county pitcher Colleen Regan.

Gina Netreba, who pitched 37.2 innings last year and had a 2.23 ERA, should help in easing the transition.

Glenelg will be tested right out of the gates with contests against River Hill, Northeast (AA), Atholton and Mt. Hebron in the first week.

Hammond

2014 record: 3-13, 4-15

Coach: Brad Speierman

Key players: Senior Caroline Goyne (P/1B); junior Emily Dowdall (OF/IF); sophomore Kelly Smith (3B); freshmen Sophie Baldwin (IF/OF) and Bethany Hewitt (C).

What you need to know: It is a rebuilding season for the Golden Bears, with Goyne serving as the only senior on the roster. But just because the team is young and mostly inexperienced, that doesn't mean there isn't talent in place.

Goyne is a four-year varsity starter who will be taking over the starting pitching duties this spring. When not in the circle, she will play first base. "Her senior experience and leadership will be a crucial component to the season as she takes over as our ace in the circle," coach Brad Speierman said.

Dowdall is the other captain and she brings three years of varsity starting experience to the table herself. She will primarily be playing shortstop and third base, while batting in the heart of the team's lineup .

Smith is the team's top returner in terms of average, batting at a .439 clip as a freshman last season. Her presence as a left-handed slap hitter is a valuable asset. Also keep an eye on the two freshmen — Baldwin and Hewitt — as immediate impact players.

Speierman says that the goal is to get better every day.

"The biggest determinant of our success will be in our ability to develop our players throughout the course of the season," he said. "This is the youngest team that Hammond has ever fielded — five freshmen, four sophomores, three juniors and one senior.

"If they continue to put in the time and effort that I've seen in the preseason, I have high expectations for how this group of young ladies will be playing by mid-season."

Howard

2014 record: 16-1, 19-2-1

Coach: Chuck Rice

Key players: Seniors Brittany Bryson (IF), Kayla Devin (IF) and Shannon Wiley (OF); Juniors Berit Batteron (IF) and Stephanie Yarrish (OF).

What you need to know: While this year's Lions' team is young, with just five returning starters and two brand new pitchers, coach Chuck Rice says this position of trying to reload after heavy graduation is not an entirely new scenario.

"The truth is, two years ago we were in a very similar spot where there were a lot of question marks after losing a lot of key seniors," Rice said. "But that team bought into the system, trusted what we do and we still had a very successful season. I feel like this group has a lot of potential as well."

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Bryson, Devin and Wiley will be the captains and all three have a few years of varsity experience to lean on. Bryson hit for a .463 average last season. Batterton will be the bat in the middle of the team's line-up, coming off a sophomore campaign where she finished with 24 RBI. Yarrish is also extremely talented and hit .369 herself as a sophomore.

Losing all-county pitchers Kayli Paugh (Player of the Year) and Courtney Merson will certainly be tough to replace. And Rice says he's keeping all the pressure off his two new girls in the circle — both who were on JV last spring. But there's definitely potential.

"We are going to put the ball across the plate and let our girls play defense … we are still going to do the things we do best," Rice said.

Long Reach

2014 record: 5-10, 6-11

Coach: Melissa Boardman

Key players: Seniors Alina Milauskas (C) and Sam Samples (3B); Junior Isa Carunungan (P); freshman Rachel Jacavage (SS).

What you need to know: The Lightning have been steadily improving the last couple years, so with six returning starters and eight total varsity players back it's not hard to see why several county coaches say Long Reach could be this year's sleeper.

"I like to think we have improved on every part of the game and it is all going to help," coach Melissa Boardman said. "Our program has come a long way, but we (still) have to work together. Experience will help the new girls come out and work as hard as the returners."

Milauskas has been on varsity since she was a freshman and will play college softball next year at Newbury. She is a steady presence behind the plate defensively and racked up impressive offensive numbers as well last season with a .378 average and eight doubles. Samples is a multi-sport athlete that was another .300 hitter last year, while Carunungan is in her third year as the team's starting pitcher.

Carunungan also is coming off a sophomore season where she hit for an impressive .420 average.

Outside of the returners, Boardman is expecting big things from freshman Jacavage. "(She is) going to be a huge part of Long Reach softball the next four years," she said.

Marriotts Ridge

2014 record: 5-11, 7-12

Coach: Karyn Curley

Key players: Seniors Lauren Biro, Anna Geier (IF/P), Isabelle Sala (C); juniors Makenzie Hockensmith (OF), Molly Meininger and Jordan Stepke (IF).

What you need to know: There was noticeable improvement throughout the season last year for the Mustangs and the team will be looking to carry over some of that momentum into this year. Overall there are six starters back and coach Karyn Curley says it is an extremely versatile and cohesive unit.

"One of the biggest strengths of the team will be the team chemistry and their ability to play together," Curley said. "The biggest determinant of success will be the depth of knowledge and skill of the players to successfully play multiple positions."

Geier is the team's leading returning hitter in terms of average, hitting .347 last year with 18 runs scored.

Aside from the returning starters, Marriotts Ridge also has several key role players in Abigail Burbank, Sam Citrano, Grace McCoy and Abby Warman.

Mt. Hebron

2014 record: 13-3, 18-4

Coach: Chuck Struhar

Key players: Seniors Maddie Bennett (P/OF) and Kathryn Diaz (OF); juniors Stephanie Bluhm (3B), Evvie Buehlman (P/OF) and Rachel Cadigan (2B); sophomore Rylee Kinsella (SS).

What you need to know: The Vikings got a taste of the big stage last spring, making it to the state semifinals, and coach Chuck Struhar says his girls are hungry to get back. "I think what happens is that once you reach that level, everyone knows the standards are now higher and there is an understanding of what it takes to get there," he said. "We haven't really had to talk about it much. The kids know what the goals are."

On paper, Mt. Hebron is loaded. Everything starts with pitching and Evvie Buehlman and Maddie Bennett are two of the best in the area. They were each among the top three in the county last year in terms of ERA and both won nine games. Throw in senior Paige Mallin for some spot innings and it's a versatile group. "They all have different styles and different pitches," Struhar said.

Overall, there are six returning starters and that should lend itself to a powerful offense as well. Buehlman, Bluhm, Cadigan, Kinsella, Bennett and Diaz all hit over .400 at the plate last season.

Defensively, Kinsella moves from the outfield to shortstop and will help make up an outstanding infield group. Struhar has said on numerous occasions that Cadigan at second base is one of the best defensive players he has ever coached.

Other seniors to keep an eye on in expanded roles this spring are Kamden Lloyd, Kelsey Albert and Caroline Smith.

Oakland Mills

2014 record: 1-15, 1-16

Coach: Skip Yarn

Key players: Seniors Tekelle Evans (P), Eugina Jones (IF), Victoria Lee (OF) and De'Asia Winder (SS/OF); Junior Emily Yarn (P/IF); sophomore Zoe Smith (C/SS).

What you need to know: There are eight returning varsity players, four of which were starters last spring, for the Scorpions. Although that group doesn't have a lot of winning experience to draw upon, coach Skip Yarn says it is still a unit that comes to work every day with a desire to get better.

"Our strength lies in the attitude of the girls. Everyone is positive," Yarn said. "They help one another and they are a good group that has each other's backs. Our measure of success will be determined not by wins and losses, but by improvement individually and collectively."

Yarn says he expects this group to be a better hitting team than last year and to also reduce its errors in the field.

In the pitching circle, Evans and Emily Yarn will share time.

Coach Yarn also points out that he anticipates some strong play from a pair of newcomers to varsity — Lizzie Yu and Megan Threat.

Reservoir

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2014 record: 9-7, 13-8-1

Coach: Julie Frisvold

Key players: Seniors Anna Bennett (C), Sophia Sommerkamp (3B) and Emily Wang (P); junior Carly Clarke (OF).

What you need to know: The Gators really picked up steam as the season went on last spring, going on a run to the region semifinals that included a playoff win over River Hill. Seven starters are back from that squad, including the team's four captains this year — Wang, Bennett, Sommerkamp and Clarke.

"The four players have worked hard throughout the offseason preparing for this season by running conditioning sessions and organizing team building events," coach Julie Frisvold said. "(As a team) we have shared many successes and we have learned from our mistakes. I feel like the returning group will mesh well with the new additions."

The majority of this group has been together on varsity since the 2013 season and has had a chance to build some nice chemistry along the way.

Everything starts with Wang on the mound, who is going into her third season as the team's starting pitcher. She is averaged just over a strikeout per inning last year on the way to a 2.72 ERA.

Bennett at catcher has been another fixture for the team. Her .426 batting average last year provided a consistent force in the top half of the line-up.

Sommerkamp and Clarke, meanwhile, are versatile players that will provide leadership in the infield and outfield, respectively.

River Hill

2014 record: 14-3, 16-5

Coach: Marni Rosenbaum

Key players: Seniors Courtney Colosimo (OF), Sabrina Curtiss (P), Kallan Dirmeyer (1B), Kinsey Johnson (3B), Sara Mascone (C) and Kristy Selby (P).

What you need to know: This is the year that the Hawks have been building toward for quite some time. With nine seniors, eight of which have starting experience, there aren't a lot of question marks for a squad that finished in second place in the standings last spring.

"There aren't too many unknowns with this group … everyone has their roles and knows where we are trying to get to," coach Marni Rosenbaum said. "The key for us, honestly, is staying in the moment so that we can make sure to peak at the right time."

Many members of this group were in key roles two years ago when the team made a run to the state semifinals, so that certainly is great experience to draw back upon.

The team's one-two pitching combination of Kristy Selby (1.41 ERA last season) and Sabrina Curtiss (2.44) is right there among the best in the area. They are a great change of pace for one another and allow Rosenbaum to play match-ups.

Offensively, the team has a terrific mix of speed, discipline and pop.

Johnson is the top returner on the squad in terms of average (.434), extra-base hits (11), runs (28) and RBI (25).

Colosimo is a great lead-off bat and star defensive outfielder that made first-team all-county as a junior. She — along with Johnson, Mascone, Dirmeyer and Caroline Hickey — give the Hawks five returning players that scored 20 or more runs last season.

The team's other two seniors  — outfielders Emily Hazzard and Mary Ellen Tokar — should both be impact players as well. Rosenbaum says Hazzard, especially, has been strong this preseason.

Wilde Lake

2014 record: 1-15, 1-16

Coach: Tee Dronenburg

Key players: Seniors Marissa Sciabarra (SS) and Mekayla Tucker (P/OF); sophomores Faith Leslie (C/IF) and Sydney McNamara (P/OF).

What you need to know: It was an incredibly inexperienced team last year for the Wildecats, who took their share of lumps along the way to just one victory. The hope, however, is that with nine players back from that team and seven of them being seniors, this year's group will be ready to make some real positive strides.

"Last year we had a young and new group of girls on varsity," coach Tee Dronenburg said. "Now that many of them have played together for a year or two, they should start 'clicking' much earlier in the season this year than they did last year."

Marissa Sciabarra was a second-team all-county selection last year after posting a .353 batting average and stealing five bases. She will be one of the team's captains.

Tucker and McNamara each saw time in the pitching circle last season and both are improved from a season ago.

Leslie, meanwhile, started every game as a freshman and Dronenburg says her "knowledge for the game is very high."

Other players to keep an eye on as the season progresses are senior outfielder Amber Love and freshman Carly Espada, who should see time at pitcher and first base.

Dronenburg is really putting a heavy emphasis on focusing this season on controlling what the team can control.

"We need to make the plays that we should and reduce the extra number of opportunities that we give the other team," she said. "Hits and runs are going to happen. But we need to do the best job we can at minimizing the damage."

Chapelgate

2014 record: 7-4 IAAM B, 10-7-1

Coach: John Isaac

Key players: Seniors Phoebe Cleaver (C), Gabby Rowan (IF), Bethanne Venkatesan (P).

What you need to know: The Yellowjackets are coming off a 2014 season where the team made its first-ever trip to the B Conference finals and almost everyone is back from that squad. Overall, there are eight of nine starters back in the fold.

A few lingering injuries have the team slightly shorthanded for the opening few weeks of the season, but by the stretch run coach John Isaac expects to have a group competing for a championship.

"If one were handicapping the race, most would pick us to win it this year but every year is a new journey," Isaac said. "We will not be full strength right away, but I still like our chances."

Venkatesan is the team's workhorse in the circle, having garnered all-star honors three years in a row. She won nine games last year and posted an impressive 130 strikeouts in 103 innings. But she was even more dominant at the plate, posting a .596 average with 10 extra-base hits.

Cleaver wasn't far behind in batting average, hitting at a .463 clip and serving as Venkatesan's battery mate at catcher. Rowan, who plays both first and third base, was an all-star as well last spring.

Lead off hitter Lydia Martin is also back, although she is one of those not at full strength during the preseason. Isaac adds that he expects "quantum production leaps" from Melissa Linduaere and Amanda Rickett, who each had great fall league seasons.

McDonogh, who had made the B Conference finals five of the last six years, has been bumped up to the A Conference.

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