An argument could be made that Howard County girls basketball is stronger than ever.
After ending the 2015-16 season with Glenelg winning a 3A state championship to wrap-up a year where the county saw young stars emerge, virtually every team across the league has added more depth, more athleticism and more talent to its roster.
"I really think from top to bottom, this is the best the league has ever been," said Mt. Hebron coach Anthony Bell, whose team is looking to improve on an 11-11 record from a year ago. "With an influx of younger players coming in that are more basketball savvy… I mean we're starting to get girls that are starting to come in the last couple years, freshmen coming into varsity ready to play. Personally, [from] what I know, I would put Howard County up against any county. The only better basketball you'll find in the state is the [IAAM]. [For] public schools, I think Howard County is the strongest."
The Gladiators earned the program's third state championship last winter — and the county's first title since Mt. Hebron won in 2008 — but it was Howard who claimed the league title, finishing with a county-best record of 17-2 (22-3 overall).
"As a coach it is a daunting task, but I think it makes all of us, players, coaches, every one, work harder because you know each game is going to be a tough game," said Lions coach Scott Robinson, who was the coach of the Vikings' 2008 championship team. "I go through the teams [and] I've used the word parity before, but that's really what it is… There's just no [easy games]. There's just not. I think for the overall reputation of the county, I think it's good. I think it's a deep, deep county and the competition throughout — there's a lot of parity."
Howard is the favorite to earn the county championship once again, as the team returns all but two players from last year's roster. And not only are the Lions primed to come out of a strong league, but also have talent to grind through a tough 4A region.
"This year things were a little easier with the tryout process and so-forth, because the girls have been through it," Robinson said. "I think the girls are confident. I think they worked hard in the offseason. They worked hard in the weight room, so I do think having everyone back is an advantage. At the same time, the disadvantage can be that complacency can set in. So I've been driving home to them not to be overconfident. They have to know that every game is going to be a challenge, but it is more a blessing than a curse to have everyone back. That is for sure. I think also we have a couple good additions. A couple freshmen that can contribute to us. I think we have 11 girls on our roster and 11 girls that can play."
Along with the Lions, Glenelg, Atholton and Long Reach will likely battle for spots at the top of the standings as well.
The Gladiators lost three seniors from an experienced state championship team, but added a few talented newcomers. The team also returns senior Julia Wolfrey, who — before going down with a torn ACL early in the playoffs — was Glenelg's leading scorer.
"The recovery was about eight months of a lot of physical therapy and just a lot of hard work… I'm doing good. I am actually a lot stronger now, so I think that will help me a lot," Wolfrey said. "I am extremely motivated … watching them was amazing, but being able to play on that court again this year would be more amazing."
The Raiders return arguably the best backcourt in the county with seniors Francesca Vanegas and Ryan Jones, while the Lightning bring back their own elite set of guards with last year's Player of the Year Kiana Williams and sophomore Lyric Swann, who also earned second-team all-county honors last season.
"Our experience is a major strength," said Lightning coach Kelli Cofield. "In reaching the regional [semifinals] last season we learned how much it takes on each play to be successful. ... All of our players are coming off of a successful offseason and we're excited to put in practice all of the things we've taken from last season and this offseason."
Along with Williams and Swann, Long Reach also returns two other starters in senior guard Devon Williams and sophomore forward Arianna Briggs-Hall — who also had a breakout first year and is more than capable of averaging a double-double this season.
Sophomores Haley Thompson and Jaeyln Swann are also primed to make a large impact in their second seasons.
"We were excited to come back on the court, because we have a lot of potential and we like the way we play together," Lyric Swann said. "Our team goals are to win states [and] to be number one in the county. It will be interesting this year because of the competition, playing teams out of county, so I think it will be really competative this year."
The young stars for the Lightning were just a few of a large group of underclassmen who shined last season.
Centennial junior forward Kelly Simmons led her team to a respectable 14-10 season, while also earning first-team all county recognition and Player of the Year consideration.
"The amount of talent and the depth of the county I think is great," Simmons said. "It gives us a good rep, because so many teams are good. You look at the scores and any team can beat any team on any given night. I think the seriousness of basketball and competitiveness is increasing and now there is a bunch of out-of-county games we play. ... Our first [five county]games, I think we play Atholton, Mt. Hebron, Howard, Glenelg, Long Reach — all the teams are good this year and it's going to be pretty competitive, which is nice."
Simmons will lead the way for the Eagles in her third year, but will also have a deeper supporting cast around her.
We only have two seniors, Jasmine [McCree] and Sandy [Eichhorn], but I think both are leaders in their own way," Coach Bobby Macheel said. "Sandy has really improved her defense and is a vocal leader. Jasmine is an awesome athlete, quiet but leads by example, especially on defense."
The Eagles' opening stretch against Atholton, Mt. Hebron, Long Reach and Howard — who combined to go 59-20 in league play a year ago — is as tough as it gets.
"I think it's going to be fun. I think teams are going to have to keep their heads up and just need to improve," Macheel said. "I think the teams that do that are going to be the ones who are going to be successful. I think some good teams are going to have poor records to start the year this year, so that's my prediction. We'll see."
The Vikings, along with Reservoir and Marriotts Ridge, added more depth on their roster and will look to contend through a tough county.
"Our expectation this year is to expect more, that is our motto," said Mustangs' senior guard Sarah Blalock. "We really want to prove to other teams that we have become very good and Marriotts Ridge basketball isn't a team that you go in to thinking, 'Oh it's an easy win.' Our games last year, we ended up coming close to a bunch of teams by only losing between two to eight points and we're just building off of last year."
The Gators battled through numerous injuries last season and even had trouble fielding a team at times, yet still finished with a respectable 9-14 overall mark. Reservoir now returns all but one starter from last year's team.
"We are getting in the weight room a lot more now, so hopefully we are all stronger," said Reservoir senior guard Haley Tiller. "I think we can have a county championship. We definitely should have a winning record this year. Our first game is Howard and that is a very competitive game, but I don't see why we can't put up a really good fight and potentially win."
Senior captain Shane Devine will lead the Vikings, as she is coming off one of her best seasons with an average of nearly 12 points per game last season. Mt. Hebron was very young last year, but brings most of its starters back and adds some new talent as well.
"The scariest thing about this year is anytime you go on the court you are going to be vulnerable if you don't come to play, because teams are so much better," said Bell. "I'm telling you, if I wasn't bald already I probably would be losing some hair just thinking about some of these potential matchups and how much harder we are going to work and prepare. But it's all going to come down to the kids and how much they execute and their [basketball] IQ. I think everybody is trying to get the IQ going and meshing and some of these younger kids don't have that killer instinct yet. They are going to realize that you really need to bear down and take it. It's going to be very interesting."
Like lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball — and to a lesser extent softball — have done over the past year, basketball is adding a mix of out-of-county games with Anne Arundel County to the schedule.
The idea behind the changes initially was to avoid lopsided scores for sports like lacrosse and field hockey, where there are large talent descrepencies between the top teams and bottom teams. Howard County's teams were divided into tiers and then matched up with similar tiers from Anne Arundel County.
But Howard County proved last season that when it comes to girls basketball any team can beat any other on any given night.
For example, Long Reach handed county-champion Howard one of its two county losses last year. Then Wilde Lake, in turn, ended up beating that same Lightning team (14-5 county, 17-6 overall) for its only win of the season.
With the amount of talent featured across the league, some coaches felt the schedule changes were unnecessary.
"Why look elsewhere when right now we have basically the best public basketball in the state? We don't need to go anywhere," said Bell. "That is just my opinion. I don't like it and I hope if they do something [with the schedule] they at least include coaches for our opinions, so we can do what's right for everybody."
Schools were split by size of enrollment, so Howard and Centennial will take on larger Arundel schools such as Old Mill and Annapolis, while smaller schools like Oakland Mills and Marriotts Ridge will face Glen Burnie, Chesapeake and North County, respectively.
There will be a play day on Dec. 10, where Northeast and South River will host a full slate of games featuring Howard County versus Ann Arundel County. Long Reach, Marriotts Ridge, Oakland Mills, Hammond, Mt. Hebron and Howard will play at Northeast in consecutive games, while Wilde Lake, River Hill, Centennial, Reservoir, Glenelg and Atholton will play at South River.
The other Howard-Arundel play-day will be Dec. 19, with all the Howard teams hosting at their respective schools at 5:30 p.m.
"There is no question about it," Robinson said in regards to a tougher schedule compared to last season. "[To start the season] we play Reservoir, who has virtually everybody back, and then we go and play Old Mill, who will probably ranked third in the Baltimore Sun Poll. They have four starters returning, so I think the schedule is definitely more challenging. I think it is fair the way they did it. The bigger schools are playing the bigger schools twice. I think also the strength of schedule definitely is higher with playing Anne Arundel County schools, while trying to match up the strength of schedule."
With the addition of the out-of-county games it changes the county championship race as well. For this season instead of the typical 19 county games scheduled, there will be just 11 – one against each team – that will count toward the county record. Teams that play each other twice during the year will only have the second game count toward their county record, while the first matchup will only reflect their overall mark.