Over the last five years, Howard County has seen its share of high school athletic success.
In that time, a state champion team or individual has emerged in nearly every sport.
Mt. Hebron girls basketball captured the 2A state title in 2008, and though some squads have come close, more than half a decade has passed since another Howard County girls basketball program has hoisted that championship trophy.
Last season, River Hill almost ended that title drought — taking an early 10-point lead in the championship game before falling just short against defending 3A champion Aberdeen.
This winter, with a multitude of talented teams, the 2013-14 season may finally be the year someone brings a title back to Howard County. Strength of schedule for the 12 public schools could prove to be a challenge, as nearly everyone has a chance to take down a few top teams. Whoever makes it out of county play with the fewest blemishes could be primed for success on the state level.
"History shows that River Hill has been successful year in and year out," Long Reach coach Kelli Cofield said of the county's girls basketball outlook. "But the middle-of-the-pack schools are beginning to make their way to the top, so this year is going to be exciting."
Though the Hawks graduated last year's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Player of the Year in Megan Sterling, the return of twins Jenna and Julia Collins — both second-team all-county selections — should be able to fill the void.
"(Julia and Jenna) have played an intricate part in our success the past three years," said veteran coach Teresa Waters. "They have played in the shadows of others when they have done all the little things."
The sisters led the team in rebounds and ranked in the top-three in assists and steals, while also finishing in the top-five on the team in scoring last season.
While coaches across the county agree that River Hill is not to be taken lightly, Reservoir, Howard and Mt. Hebron are all on the verge of vying for a county crown as well.
Senior Zelor Massaquoi averaged 12.8 points per game for the Gators last season. Guards Keri Rager (second-team all-county) and Tara Thompson also return, making Reservoir one of the most experienced teams in the league.
Confident in his squad's chances at a county title, coach Kyle Sullivan said the Gators are ready to take the next step.
"We've been knocking on the door the past two seasons, and this is the season where I expect us to have the best shot," he said. "As long as we are able to stay healthy, I think we will create mismatch problems all around the county."
Don't count Howard out as a possible contender either, especially with coach Scott Robinson in charge. After all, it was Robinson that led that 2008 Mt. Hebron team to the county's last state championship. Last winter, he nearly found his way back to the state tournament, when his Lions fell short against River Hill in the 3A East regional final. Now in the 4A classification, new challenges await.
First-team all-county center Sydney Biniak will look to improve on her county-leading 10.4 rebounds per game from last season. Seniors Emma Hoesman and Anne Kinsey will only add to the Lions' potent roster. Overall, four starters return from last year's 21-4 team. Robinson said he isn't counting out anybody, even if experience is on his side.
Mt. Hebron coach Tony Bell said his team's game against Howard will be "huge," considering the Lions won all three of last year's match-ups. The Vikings return first-team all-county junior forward Nia Crump, who averaged 8.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Bell said he expects junior guard Megan Konig and sophomore center Gabby Green to make significant impacts on the floor as well.
Five coaches take over for their first season with their respective teams.
After seven seasons with the junior varsity team, Chris Beil takes over at Glenelg. Wilde Lake also welcomes Bob Cranford as its new head coach, while Caitlin Bay takes over at Marriotts Ridge and Christina Hewitt will lead Oakland Mills. Chapelgate AD Jason Bennett will serve as head coach as well this year.
With the season tipping off on Dec. 5, here's a look at the teams across the county:
Top players: Senior Margaret Tatum (G/F); juniors Kalere Caldwell (F) and Chelsea Mitchell (G); freshmen Francesca Vanegas (G) and Ryan Jones (G).
What to expect: While second-year coach Julia Reynold said that post play will be one of the biggest challenges facing the Raiders this season, there is still a lot to be excited about with new additions to the roster.
"We graduated one senior last year, so there are nine returners," she said. "I have also added two freshmen, Francesca Vanegas and Ryan Jones, who will add to our guard play."
Chelsea Mitchell (second team) returns as the Raiders lone all-county selection from last season. The junior guard averaged 12 points per game in her sophomore year.
Reynold said she is particularly looking forward to the play of Mitchell, who has "quick hands on defense and has great speed."
The Raiders will be without senior forward Briana Taborn, as she is still recovering from a knee injury from last season.
Coach: Robert Macheel
Last season: (7-12, 8-15)
Top players: Seniors Sara Downing (G), Brittany Anderson (F), Sammie Alborhoz (G) Mary Anderson (F) and Alicia Hsieh (G); juniors Anna Mitchell (F) and Kimmy Eads (F).
What to expect: Keeping healthy will be the biggest concern for Centennial heading into this season, as well as staying focused during long stretches of games, according to coach Robert Macheel.
"Experience will be our biggest strength as we have a majority of returners who have had two or more years on varsity," he added.
The Eagles' senior leadership alone is invaluable, as five girls return looking to make a significant impact in their final seasons.
Guards Sara Downing, Sammie Albornoz and Alicia Hsieh, as well as forwards Brittany Anderson and Mary Anderson make up that senior group.
Junior Anna Mitchell (first) returns as the Eagles only representative on the all-county list from last year. In her sophomore season, she averaged 10.8 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game. Her 23 blocked shots also ranked first on the team.
A prominent member of the Eagles' regional runner up soccer team, Mitchell nearly chose to forgo fall sports in favor of preparing for basketball.
Coach: Chris Beil
Last season: (8-11, 10-13)
Top players: Seniors Ally Forejt (PG), Olivia Nowlin (G) and Lauren Wright (F).
What to expect: With seven years as a junior varsity head coach under his belt, coach Chris Beil made the jump to the next level over the offseason. He takes over a Glenelg team that has the potential to make some waves this winter.
"I don't foresee any big challenges as I have coached most of (this team) at the JV level," he said. "I hope to hit the court running."
Eight returners from last year give the Gladiators an advantage in experience. Seniors Ally Forejt, Olivia Nowlin and Lauren Wright will act as captains this season.
Beil said he liked what he saw from these girls leading up to winter tryouts.
Nowlin, a threat from beyond the arc, made 32 3-pointers last year, leading all returning players in the county.
Beil said he embraces the opportunity he has at Glenelg, and that he sees some winning seasons on the horizon.
"I am looking forward to building on the success Glenelg has built over the last several years," he added. "We are looking forward to the challenges this season poses and we will be ready for them."
Coach: Raymona Reid
Last season: (0-19, 0-21)
Top players: Seniors Keyuana Griffin (PG) and Elizabeth Frekot (F/C); junior Jameelah Wallace (F/C); sophomore Lauryn Terry (C); freshmen Delaney Cannon (G) and Jaelyn Nole (F).
What to expect: Coming off a less than perfect season last year, coach Raymona Reid wants to create a new culture surrounding Golden Bears girls basketball.
Returning a team that is "bigger, stronger and quicker," is the first step.
"Our biggest challenge will be really changing the perception (of playing against us)," she said. "We are changing many aspects about Hammond basketball."
Playing with "total confidence" is something the 11-year coach said she wants to stress this winter.
Reid was simple in analyzing her squad's chances as the season fast approaches. "We are just looking to contend," she said. Still, when asked about Hammond's chances against some of the top teams in the county, the coach didn't shy away from the challenge.
"Everyone is a dark horse to me because they will hopefully be meeting a Hammond team that they have never seen before," she said.
Look out for expected leaders like Jameelah Wallace, Lauryn Terry and Betsy Frekot in the paint, as well as Keyuana Griffin and Delaney Cannon in the backcourt.
Coach: Scott Robinson
Last season: (16-3, 21-4)
Top players: Seniors Sydney Biniak (C), Emma Hoesman and Anne Kinsey (G); junior Jayda Gilmore (G).
What to expect: Scott Robinson is entering his third year with the Lions this winter. If his past success is any indication of what is to come, Howard could be in for a big year.
Sydney Biniak returns as a favorite for player of the year honors. The center led the county in rebounds last year and finished third in assists (3.1 per game). Following graduation, Biniak will play volleyball at the University of Maryland.
Also returning to a stacked Lions' lineup are second-team all-county selections Jayda Gilmore and Anne Kinsey, as well as senior point guard Emma Hoesman.
The Lions did take a hit before the season even began when starter Jade Wells suffered a torn ACL.
Robinson acknowledged that the county could be up for grabs, as many upsets could be in the making. Though they will have to face the likes of River Hill, Mt. Hebron, Reservoir and other county favorites, the Lions will figure into the 4A classifaiton come playoff time.
After finishing second to the Hawks for the county title last winter, match-ups with Howard should be circled on every other county team's calendar.
Coach: Kelli Cofield
Last season: (8-11, 11-13)
Top players: Seniors Imani Sanders (PG), Katelyn Peterson (G) and Gillian Engelbrecht (F); junior Alana Ratliff (G).
What to expect: Losing all-county guard Olivia Callahan to graduation will leave a sizable gap for the Lighting to fill, but coach Kelli Cofield said she is confident in the squad she has. Add two junior transfers to the mix, and the Lightning could be a surprise team in county play.
Like all coaches, Cofield said she's always worried about the injury bug rearing its ugly head, especially since her team isn't as deep as she'd like it to be.
Still, seven seniors and nine girls with extensive varsity experience give the Lightning an advantage, especially early on.
"I'm leaning on the leadership of the upperclassmen to really pace us through this season," Cofield added.
"We are expecting some big things from our senior point guard Imani Sanders, as well as senior forward Gillian Engelbrecht," she said. "They both had great seasons last year and we are expecting them to build from last year's successes."
Engelbrecht notched 10 rebounds per game last year. Her play in the paint is paramount if the Lightning want to keep up with the rest of the county.
Coach: Caitlin Bay
Last season: (6-13, 7-15)
Top players: Seniors Marissa Davey (G), Amanda Miller (G), Jenna Bergquist (F), Kali Taylor (F) and Jenna Kerr (F).
What to expect: The Mustangs are another club with a new girls basketball coach this season, as Caitlin Bay makes the all too familiar move from JV to varsity.
With five seniors all sharing leadership duties, Marriotts Ridge looks to be primed to improve on last year's 6-13 county record.
Jenna Bergquist returns to the court after leading the county with a 90 percent save percentage as a goalkeeper on the soccer field.
In her junior year, the forward averaged 8.3 points per game.
She'll be joined on the floor by upperclassmen Marissa Davey (G), Amanda Miller (G), Kali Taylor (F) and Jenna Kerr (F).
"This is our first year together as a team," said Bay. "Meshing as a program — both players and the coaching staff — is our ultimate goal this year. It is something we have already started working towards since day one. I have no doubt that we will achieve this goal."
Bay's club prides itself on playing tough, smart defense, and with the implantation of new offensive schemes, the ability to score points efficiently should develop as the year goes on.
A number of multi-sport athletes make up this Mustangs team, so athleticism and basketball IQ shouldn't be an issue either.
Bay said Howard is the team to beat this season, and that her girls are excited to play them, as well as other schools in the county.
Coach: Tony Bell
Last season: (14-5, 17-7)
Top players: Senior Tianna Wallpher (G); juniors Megan Konig (G) and Nia Crump (F); sophomore Gabby Green (C).
What to expect: The Vikings are another squad that poses a threat to the county's upper tier. Five-year coach Tony Bell welcomes back senior Tianna Wallpher and junior Nia Crump, who was the lone all-county selection for the Vikings (first-team).
Crump led her team last season with 9.1 boards per game, which was fifth-best in the county overall.
Bell said he can't wait to play the best teams in the county, especially with the majority of last year's squad back this season.
"Our biggest strength is our depth," he said. "We have 11 returning players out of 15. We will push the ball and have a nice outside game."
The Vikings — who only dropped five county games last season — lost to Howard on three separate occasions, something that Ball said did not sit well with him or his girls.
This year, the two teams only play once. Look for that match-up to be one of the better games all season.
Coach: Christina Hewitt
Last season: (10-9, 14-11)
Top players: Seniors Karigan Awkward (G) and Lauren Thompson (G); junior Tori Diggs (G).
What to expect: Multiple county coaches have called the Scorpions one of the more dangerous teams flying under the radar this season.
First-year coach Christina Hewitt moves from the soccer sideline to lead Oakland Mills on the basketball court as well.
Senior guards Karigan Awkward and Lauren Thompson, as well as junior guard Tori Diggs return looking to take over where last year's first-team all-county selection Traonna Thomas left off.
Awkward, a second-team selection last year, ranked among the blocked shots leaders in the county with 34.
Diggs led the county with a 82 free throw percentage. Her precision from beyond the charity stripe was paired with 7.7 points per game.
For the Scorpions, a new coach means a new philosophy.
"The girls are being asked to play a different role than they did last year, and only time will tell if they are able to step up to the challenge," said Hewitt. "Transitioning and change of a new coach will bring challenges as well."
Between Awkward, Thompson and Diggs, Hewitt said guard play is the least of her worries. The core of the team remained intact from last season, so Hewitt said she is excited to see how offseason training translates into on-court production.
Coach: Kyle Sullivan
Last season: (16-3, 17-4)
Top players: Seniors Zelor Massaquoi (G/F), Tara Thompson (G) and Keri Rager (G); sophomore Danaysha Turner (G).
What to expect: Just as the Gators squad is gaining ground as one of the favorites to take the county crown this year, so too is the hype surrounding Zelor Massaquoi's chances at being named player of the year.
As a junior last season, the forward was the only county player to average a double-double on the season (12.8 points per game, 10.2 rebounds). Her stellar play earned her first-team all-county honors.
"I would expect Massaquoi to be player of the year," said six-year coach Kyle Sullivan. A number of other important pieces return to the Gators this season, including guards Keri Rager (second-team all-county), Tara Thompson, Danaysha Turner and Blair Bonner.
Sullivan noted that injuries will again be the deciding factor. But, over the last few seasons, the Gators have been close to turning the corner. Sullivan said his team is excited to play Howard — the school he said should finish right behind his Reservoir club in the county standings at the end of the year.
Coach: Teresa Waters
Last season: (18-1, 23-4)
Top players: Seniors Jenna Collins (G/F) and Julia Collins (G); junior Annie Clark (C); sophomores Jessica Hopkins (PG) and Sydney Poindexter (C).
What to expect: Coach Teresa Waters (33 years total coaching experience) has been with her program longer than any other coach in the county. Following last season's difficult state championship loss, it's more than likely that the Hawks will reload quicker than people think.
Senior sisters Julia and Jenna Collins each piled up impressive numbers last year on their way to earning second-team all-county honors.
Julia Collins averaged 5.9 boards per game, while Jenna averaged 6.3. Both sisters average 9.4 points per game.
Waters praised the Collins twins and their efforts over the last three seasons, and said that accompanying players like Jessica Hopkins, Sydney Poindexter and Halley Seybold may provide that extra push that River Hill needs to earn revenge in the state tournament.
Though the Hawks lost Megan Sterling to graduation, along with other key players, look for this team to continue to dominate until another team challenges them for their county supremacy.
"Everyone brings their 'A game' to River Hill," Waters said.
Coach: Bob Cranford
Last season: (3-16, 5-18)
Top players: Seniors Lindsey Williams (F/C) and Grayson Corbett (PG/G); junior Alyssa Bialek (G); sophomore Rachel Lazris (G).
What to expect: After winning just three games in county competition last year, the Wildecats are under new management with longtime Glenelg Country coach Bob Cranford taking over.
Senior forward/center Lindsey Williams returns as the county's best shot-blocker from a year ago. Her 80 swats in the 2012-13 season led the county.
With five seniors and 14 girls overall, Cranford said his team is "loaded" with junior and sophomore talent.
The coach said he was excited to see players like Alyssa Bialek and Rachel Lazris get into county play.
"Rachel is a phenomenal kid," he said. "She's a pit bull on the floor and she doesn't get tired. She just plays the game really well."
Grayson Corbett also returns for a Wildecats team that Cranford said is really starting to "buy into" what he's teaching.
"They seem to love what's going on," he said. "They're not just going through the motions."
A new offensive scheme may prove to be a challenge early for Wilde Lake, but Cranford said he expects the rust to shake off as the season matures.
"They're going to make mistakes out there," he said. "I want to win them all, but if we win one more game than last year, (it means) we progressed forward."
Coach: Jason Bennett
Last season: (9-5 IAAM C, 16-9)
Top players: Seniors Courtney Hayes (G) and Christina VanWingerden (G); freshmen Amanda Rickett (G/F) and Abby Heffler (G).
What to expect: With some turnover evident from last season's 16-9 team, the Yellowjackets are in rebuilding mode.
Many of the girls that make up this year's roster do not have the experience that other schools in IAAM C Conference play may possess.
Still, with players like senior guards Christina VanWingerden and Courtney Hayes, Chapelgate has the potential to surprise some schools.
Hayes has a knack for finding an open 3-pointer, and VanWingerden has no problem fighting through traffic to get to the basket.
Chapelgate athletic director Jason Bennett will serve as coach this season.
Coach: Ed Conroy
Last season: (6-9 IAAM C, 7-11)
Top players: Senior Mallory Pappas (F); junior Sabrina DeLeonibus (PG); sophomores Ka'Mari Robinson (G) and Alayna Newsome (F).
What to expect: Coach Ed Conroy is entering his second season with the Lady Dragons, and with senior forward Mallory Pappas, and junior guard Sabrina DeLeonibus heading the offense, Glenelg Country will see its share of success.
The team's first win came in a rivalry match-up with Chapelgate, where both DeLeonibus and Pappas scored and distributed with ease.
"Sabrina is an offensive dynamo who hopes to continue her dual role as assists leader and leading scorer," Conroy said. "Her quick hands and sharp passes make her a particularly daunting match up for defenses."
Sophomores Ka'Mari Robinson and Alayna Newsome also figure to be essential pieces to the Lady Dragons this season. Youth has become a trend with this team overall.
"For the second year in a row swelling ranks of younger athletes fill the varsity roster," Conroy said. "Young and enthusiastic players with positive attitudes and great work ethic are wonderful attributes for this school's growing girls' sports program."