Survey county basketball coaches heading into this winter and it's no secret where the bar is.
The run of success for Howard — county champions four of the last five years — and, more recently, Long Reach — 3A state finalists last winter and three straight 17-plus-win seasons — has forced the rest of the area teams to set their sights high if they want to join the county's elite.
But, as Reservoir coach Deb Taylor can attest, chasing excellence has its advantages.
"Howard has not only been a great team year after year, but it is a great program and that's a reflection of Scott [Robinson]. So Scott has set the bar high for us as coaches … and what the girls have accomplished at Howard makes our players work hard because they want that same kind of thing," said Taylor, whose Gators finished third in the county standings a year ago and lost by a point to Long Reach in overtime of the 3A East region semifinals. "You've seen Long Reach step up in recent years, you've seen Oakland Mills step up … I think that all started with the success of Howard and the rest of us chasing them."
Reservoir certainly has the pieces returning to take direct aim at the program's first-ever county and region championships. Senior Emily Dorn was a first-team All-County forward as a junior last winter, averaging a double-double, and she is joined by four other returners with starting experience.
But for as much potential as this collection of Gators may have, they still know whom they need to go through in order to reach the top.
"Howard and Long Reach remain the teams to beat, until proven otherwise," Taylor said. "Howard lost a ton to graduation, but with Scott Robinson at the helm, you can bet his new kids will be ready. Long Reach clearly has stellar players with the Swann twins [Lyric and Jaelyn] and Arianna [Briggs-Hall]."
It's Long Reach that is regarded by most as the favorites entering this season. The Lightning have added a couple of impact transfers to a group that graduated only one player — All-County guard Kiana Williams — from last year's county- and region-championship squad.
Included among the returners is reigning Howard County Player of the Year Lyric Swann, who averaged a county-best 19.3 points a game and scored in double figures every game as a junior. Regular starters Briggs-Hall, Jaelyn Swann and Haley Thompson are also back for a Lightning team that set a program record with its 21 victories a year ago.
"After our run last year, now they know what it takes. They know how much every possession, every practice and every game matters," Long Reach coach Kelli Cofield said. "Their familiarity with each other and experience is something that is going to be leaned on heavily as we try to continue that success."
Howard, meanwhile, finds itself facing a few more unknowns after graduating three All-County players as part of a group of five seniors on last year's team. The Lions are now incredibly young, with no seniors on this winter's roster, but the program has shown an uncanny ability over the years to reload instead of rebuild.
Look for junior guards Marisa Sanchez-Henry and Camille Malagar to take on more prominent roles after averaging 6.6 and 5.7 points a game, respectively, in 2017-18.
"There's no doubt about it, we have to do some things differently than we have in the past," Robinson said. "We've actually talked about needing to now try and take advantage of our lack of size, in the sense that we are maybe more athletic than we have been. There are just likely going to be some growing pains."
On the heels of a season a year ago where Howard had an average margin of victory of 36.6 points per game in its 15 county victories, Robinson fully expects things to be much tighter this winter.
"With the quality of our guards, we should still be competitive. And I've been happy with the team chemistry so far, but we know that it's going to be nothing like last year in terms of the disparity of the scores," Robinson said. "There's a lot of balance and parity in the county, and we know that because of the last few years we are absolutely going to get everybody's best game."
Reservoir figures to be at the forefront of that next group of challengers, but there are several other teams in position for big steps forward as well.
Oakland Mills returns every player from last year's 2A state semifinalist squad and has also added a couple impact transfers to the mix. Marley Grenway, who recently signed her National Letter of Intent to play at Coppin State University and is just 81 points away from 1,000 for her career, joins Aislyn Riggs as returners for the Scorpions that made All-County as juniors a season ago.
Throw in junior guard Jazmine Washington (11.4 points per game last winter), along with talented senior transfers Kobie Scott-Pearson and Kiyah King, and Oakland Mills has the weapons to make plenty of noise.
"We have six to seven girls now that can score the basketball, so the challenge for me as a coach is going to be figuring out how to mesh that talent. It's a good challenge to have, though," Oakland Mills coach Walt Hagins said.
Elsewhere, Centennial has a pair of double-digit scorers — Rasa Welsh and Brook Anderson — back in the fold, while Mt. Hebron (Tori Valentine) and Hammond (Imani Reid) each return an All-County player as well.
It all adds up to very few easy games, even for the elite teams.
"I think this year's county race will be one of the toughest I have seen in 16 years," Centennial coach Rob Slopek said. "There are six to seven teams who can compete and I think it will force every team to be at their best every night."
There are several new faces among the county's head coaches this year, with David Ebbe taking over for Chris Beil at Glenelg, Ryan Hudy replacing Mona Reid at Hammond, Sarah Miller succeeding David Bond at Marriotts Ridge, and Tierney Ahearn taking over the reigns at Mt. Hebron for Tony Bell.
Of the departed coaches, Reid was the longest tenured — having led the Golden Bears varsity team on and off since the 2001-02 season. Bell was head coach of the Mt. Hebron varsity squad since 2009 and Beil had been with the Gladiators varsity since 2013, leading the program to a state championship in 2016.
In the private school ranks, both Glenelg Country and Chapelgate will be looking for bounce-back seasons after each won just three games overall last winter. The Dragons compete in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference, while the Yellowjackets are in the C Conference.
The two local private schools, which each have already played at least three regular season games, are not scheduled to play one another this season.
The first official play date for public school teams is Dec. 6, with the first county games scheduled for Dec. 7 — a slate that includes Howard traveling to take on Reservoir.
Here's a snapshot look at what to expect from the 14 local girls basketball programs as the 2018-19 season gets underway:
2017-18 record: 6-10 county, 9-14 overall
Coach: Julia Reynold, sixth year
Top players: Seniors Zhuri Cannon (F), Alexandra Hargrett (G) and Sarah Sowah (F); junior Natalie Blair (G).
What you need to know: The Raiders return several key pieces from last year's team that played .500 basketball during the second half of the season. Although the transfer of all-county guard Kayla Beckwith to Bullis School is a significant loss, three players are back — Zhuri Cannon, Alexandra Hargrett and Sarah Sowah — that averaged at least five points a game a season ago. All three players are four-year varsity players.
Hargrett recently signed her National Letter of Intent to run track at the University of Maryland, with her speed at the guard position serving as a tremendous weapon. Cannon and Sowah, meanwhile, serve as two of the team's top rebounders.
Blair is in her third year on varsity and should be the team's top outside shooter. Overall there are 15 players on the team — the largest roster coach Julia Reynold has had since taking over the program — and seven are seniors.
"I believe our team strength will be pushing the tempo and getting out in the open court," Reynold said. "We also have several athletic players who can play multiple positions based on the needs of the team."
2017-18 record: 7-9, 11-12
Coach: Rob Slopek, second year (seventh overall at Centennial)
Top players: Seniors Jordan Dossett (G), Madison Fowler (G) and Ashley Molz (G); juniors Brook Anderson (G) and Rasa Welsh (F).
What you need to know: Before being devastated by injuries late in the season, the Eagles had developed into one of the county's top teams behind a balanced attack and scrappy defense. This winter, Centennial is one of only three county squads that brings back each of its top four scorers — with Rasa Welsh, Brook Anderson, Ashley Molz and Jordan Dossett averaging five or more points last year.
It's still a fairly young group, with just three seniors on the roster, but experience is plentiful.
"We have a great mix of seniors and underclassmen, so I think they will balance each other out and help us keep calm during pressure situations. It should also, though, help us understand how important certain moments are," coach Rob Slopek said.
Welsh just missed making all-county as a sophomore after finishing among the top 13 county players in points, rebounds and steals. A Campbell University lacrosse commit, she has been a leader so far this year according to Slopek.
As for the senior group, Molz and Dossett are guards that will play huge roles on defense and as facilitators on offense. Anderson, meanwhile, is a sharpshooting wing that is coming off a sophomore year where she hit 48 threes.
Slopek is also excited about some of the new faces, including the sophomore tandem of Tori Pearson and Alejandra Urquiga.
2017-18 record: 9-7, 16-8
Coach: David Ebbe, first year
Top players: Seniors Alex Anderson (F), Olivia LePage (G) and Leya Prezelski (G).
What you need to know: It's a changing of the guard in more ways than one this year for the Gladiators. The team has a new coach in David Ebbe and will be adjusting to life without last year's top two scorers — Jess Foster and Kellie Johnson.
The good news is that there are a multitude of candidates to step up, headlined by Olivia LePage. She has been a varsity contributor since getting called up at the end of her freshman year and averaged 7.8 points a game as a junior.
Alex Anderson is also a proven player on the inside, averaging 4.2 points and 5.7 rebounds a game last winter.
"We're hoping to implement a balanced approach, so any number of our players could potentially break out this season," Ebbe said. "One of our biggest challenges will be to figure out a way to replace the approximately 30 points a game that exited our team via the graduations of Jess Foster and Kellie Johnson. I'm optimistic that our team culture, team chemistry, and balanced approach with help us close as much of that gap as possible.
In addition to Ebbe, who moves up after coaching the Glenelg JV program, there will be several other familiar faces roaming the sidelines as well this winter. Former Glenelg players Mary Kittleman (JV head coach), Emily Russo (varsity assistant) and Danielle Burris (varsity assistant) have all returned to their old stomping grounds.
2017-18 record: 3-13, 6-14
Coach: Ryan Hudy, first year
Top players: Seniors Nyelle Allen (C), Imani Reid (G) and Taylor Liguori (G); sophomore Jocelyn Fogle (F).
What you need to know: There's a good bit of buzz surrounding the Golden Bears as a sleeper team this winter capable of winning double digit games after emerging victorious only three times in county play last year.
Hudy arrives after coaching JV at Wilde Lake and inherits a team with plenty of experience at key positions. Imani Reid is the headliner, coming a second-team All-County season where she averaged 13.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 3.1 steals a game. Hudy is counting on the Bethune-Cookeman signee for not only her production on the court, but also for her leadership off it for the underclassmen.
Allen is one of the few true post players in the county and is another senior poised for a big year after averaging 6.9 points and 7.6 rebounds a game last winter. The return of Taylor Liguori to the hardwood is also a big boost, as she averaged 10.1 points a game as a sophomore.
"We have a number of senior that have been playing at a varsity level since they were freshmen," Hudy said. "Coaches can never have enough senior leaders, and we have a few this year that our team will be able to rely on."
Among the new faces, sophomore Jocelyn Fogle has a ton of potential. The forward missed her freshman year with an injury and figures to contend for starting minutes.
Hammond opens with a tough test against Oakland Mills, a team that it lost to by just one point in its county opener last season.
2017-18 record: 15-1, 22-2
Coach: Scott Robinson, eighth year
Top players: Juniors Anii Harris (G), Camille Malagar (G) and Marisa Sanchez-Henry (G); sophomores Emily Durkee (G) and Lauren Russell (G); freshman Gabby Scott (F).
What you need to know: During a coaching career that has spanned nearly three decades, including stints as the varsity coach for the boys and girls at Mt. Hebron, Scott Robinson has never had a roster that didn't feature a single senior. That is, until this winter.
The three-time defending county-champion Lions certainly have a different look, with the top four scorers from a season ago having graduated. The good news, though, is that thanks to a young but talented core group of guards, this isn't a complete rebuild. Juniors Marissa Sanchez-Henry and Camille Malagar have each showcased the ability to score in double digits consistently, while Lauren Russell and Emily Durkee also saw significant minutes a year ago as freshmen.
"We have a couple girls that have been on varsity now for a couple years — Marissa and Camille — that can lead by example and I'm also lucky to have a really good JV coach [James Stewart] that runs the same system," Robinson said. "So even though we are very young, there is still some continuity to build around."
Anii Harris, a transfer into the program from Pallotti, and freshman Gabby Scott should be new faces playing major minutes as well. Scott, the younger sister of all-county forward Emileigh Scott (2017 grad), is the lone post player on the varsity team this winter.
2017-18 record: 15-1, 21-3
Coach: Kelli Cofield, eighth year
Top players: Seniors Ariana Briggs-Hall (F), Malaya Streeter (G), Jaelyn Swann (G), Lyric Swann (G) and Haley Thompson (F); junior Jalyn Richardson (G).
What you need to know: It was a historic season in almost every respect last winter for the Lightning, which captured county and region titles and eclipsed 20 victories all for the first time. Losing first-team all-county guard Kiana Williams is a significant blow, but everyone else is back and that includes 2017-18 Player of the Year Lyric Swann, who averaged a county-best 19.3 points per game.
The team has shooters in Lyric and Jaelyn Swann, a proven inside presence in the duo of Ariana Briggs-Hall and Haley Thompson, and explosive ball handlers in guards Malaya Streeter and Jalyn Richardson.
Richardson is a transfer into the program from Arundel, having averaged 8.6 points a game as a sophomore. Senior Rebecca Ford is another transfer expected to contribute right away, arriving from St. Francis Prep in New York. Ford and junior Maya Proctor will each provide minutes off the bench in the frontcourt.
"Anytime you lose a player as talented as Kiana was, you feel that. But that said, the strength of this team is our expereience," coach Kelli Cofield said. "We have eight seniors on this team, many of which have been playing together now for several years. And this is also a team with a lot of versatile players that we can put out there in a number of different combinations."
2017-18 record: 8-8, 13-11
Coach: Sarah Miller, first year
Top players: Senior Mallory Conroy (G/F); juniors Emma Miller (G) and Emma Morath (F); sophomore Morgan Lee (G).
What you need to know: Last year's Mustangs' team was one of the deepest in the county, with eight players averaging three or more points a game. That spread of playing time has this year's group, which features the return of three starters and nine players overall, ready to hit the ground running.
Mallory Conroy led the way in scoring last winter with nine points a game and returns as one of five seniors.
The underclassmen boast plenty of potential as well, especially in the form of the additions from last year's JV squad that went undefeated in county play. Coach Sarah Miller is particularly excited about Emma Miller and Morgan Lee, expecting them to "make an immediate impact in the scoring column this year."
Marriotts Ridge raced out of the gates last year to a 6-3 record during December and face nearly the exact same schedule this year — including non-county contests during the first month against South Carroll, Glen Burnie and Liberty.
2017-18 record: 5-11, 9-14
Coach: Tierney Ahearn, first year
Top players: Seniors Eve Chase (F), Clarke Oliver (G), Julia Rodriguez (G) and Meredith Williams (F); junior Tori Valentine (G).
What you need to know: Another team that appears more than capable of flipping its record from a season ago, the Vikings are one of the county's more experienced squads with eight returning players and six seniors. In fact, Mt. Hebron is the only county program that brings back five players that averaged at least five points a game in 2017-18.
Tori Valentine is the leader of the group, having made first team All-County last season while averaging 15.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.3 steals a game.
"She has phenomenal point guard with unmatched speed and quickness," first-year coach Tierney Ahearn said. "She will be the catalyst of our offense."
The senior group with starting experience features a pair of guards — Clarke Oliver and Julia Rodriguez — and a pair of forwards — Eve Chase and Meredith Williams. The two newcomers are Audrey Harrington and Erin Dixon, a pair of freshmen expected to add quality depth to the roster according to Ahearn.
Ahearn herself has deep Hebron roots, graduating from the school in 1993 and playing on the varsity basketball team for three seasons. She is hoping to "bring back the Hebron tradition of relentless defense."
2017-18 record: 10-6, 17-9
Coach: Walt Hagins, second year
Top players: Seniors Lilyann Eldridge (G), Marley Grenway (G), Kiyah King (F), Aislynn Riggs (F) and Kobie Scott-Pearson (F); junior Jazmine Washington (G).
What you need to know: With a roster last winter that featured no seniors, the Scorpions ended up being the county's biggest surprise team — going from nine wins in 2016-17 to 17 victories and a 2A South region championship. Fueled by that postseason run, Oakland Mills has even bigger goals this winter.
"We talk about it at the end of every practice, winning that 2A state championship. We look at the posters on the wall, and it's been over 20 years. We want to do it for OM, do it for the community and do it for ourselves," said junior guard Jazmine Washington, who is one of three returners — joining Marley Grenway and Aislynn Riggs — that averaged at least 11 points a game a year ago.
In addition to the returners, the team has also added a couple versatile wing players in Kiyah King and Kobie Scott-Pearson. King was at Wilde Lake last year and averaged 14.8 points a game, while Scott-Pearson arrives from Western to provide an inside-outside presence. Last year, Riggs was the lone post presence, now the team has several.
It all adds up to what coach Walt Hagins said is a much more versatile group in terms of skill set and depth.
"It's no longer on, what I referred to last year as the 'Trio of Titans,' to carry the brunt of the load for us. I can make substitutions this year and we can play in different ways," Hagins said. "I think you are going to see a group that can stretch the floor and really score the basketball."
2017-18 record: 11-5, 15-9
Coach: Deb Taylor, fourth year
Top players: Seniors Emily Dorn (G/F), Jenni Fourney (G) and Natalie Verna (G); junior Tiffany Hooker (G); sophomores Kate Abunassar (G) and Abby Bailey (F).
What you need to know: After a slow start last year that saw the team lose six of its first seven contests, the Gators caught fire during the second half of the season — going 14-3 the rest of the way. With a strong returning cast, headlined by first-team all-county senior Emily Dorn, Reservoir is hoping to carry over some of that momentum.
This is a team with a ton of talent and experience, including a senior trio of Dorn, Jenni Fourney and Natalie Verna that have all been on varsity for four years now.
"We came in together four years ago and we know each other really well," coach Deb Taylor said. "I know what they can do, they know what I am looking for, and they provide great leadership for the new girls."
All signs point to a breakout season for junior guard Tiffany Hooker, who already was one of the team's top scorers at 7.3 points a game last winter. Kate Abunassar (5.9 ppg in 2017-18) and athletic forward Abby Bailey (3.6 ppg) are also returning players that logged major minutes a season ago.
Throw in a larger role for sophomore Daniah Moultrie, along with immediate impact minutes from freshmen Karis Turner and Maddy Davis, and this is a deep team with plenty of options off the bench. Taylor adds that after graduating the double-double averages Nia Powell put up in the paint, the team will likely look to spread the floor and play faster.
"Replacing the inside strength and post presence of last year will be difficult, but we will adjust to a more aggressive running style," Taylor said. "We have terrific guards who can push the ball and shoot. Although we are a bit smaller, our posts are athletic and versatile and can fit into a running style of play."
2017-18 record: 7-9, 14-10
Coach: Teresa Waters, 21st year
Top players: Seniors Emily Masker (F) and Maggie O'Keefe (G); juniors Kennedy Clark (G) and Saniha Jackson (F).
What you need to know: The Hawks are coming off their first winning overall season since the 2013-14 campaign and bring back three starters from last year's squad. Kennedy Clark led the team in scoring a season ago with 8.7 points a game and fellow junior Saniha Jackson wasn't far behind with 7.7 points a contest.
The duo of Clark and Jackson, to go along with the versatile Emily Masker (5.3 ppg in 2017-18), provides a nice snapshot of the team's inside-outside balance. Coach Teresa Waters says the ability push the ball and play with tempo is among the team's strengths, but the team also showcased the ability to thrive in a half-court game as well last year.
Despite finishing under .500 in county play, the Hawks were one of the league's top defensive teams, particularly down the stretch —holding five of their last seven opponents under 40 points.
Keep an eye on the team's crop of four freshmen that made varsity, in particular forward Anihya Smith.
2017-18 record: 0-16, 1-20
Coach: Rhonda Corkeron, second year
Top players: Juniors Kalani Corkeron (G/F), Alexa Mullican (G/F) and Lily Richards (C); Freshmen Brianna Floyd (G), Mia Swaby-Rowe (F) and Claire Zimmerman (G).
What you need to know: It's another incredibly young team for the Wildecats, which feature no seniors and just two returning players from a season ago. The good news is that one of those juniors — Kalani Corkeron — is among the top returning players in the county after averaging 12.9 points a game last winter.
"Last year wasn't successful; in the win/loss column for us, but Kalani accepted and delivered on the challenge of guiding, supporting, leading by example, playing all positions, defending the opponent's best players and still scoring points," coach Rhonda Corkeron said.
Richards is the lone other returner, providing rebounding and a presence inside. The team will get a big boost from a talented trio of freshmen that all boast experience playing travel basketball.
While Wilde Lake didn't win a game in county last season, the team did have four games decided by eight points or less. The talent is there to break through in some of those close contests.
"We are stressing defense and an up-tempo game and see that as our strengths this season," Rhonda Corkeron said. "We are young, quick and aggressive."
2017-18 record: 2-12 IAAM C, 3-20
Coach: Kevin Florent, second year
Top players: Senior Bri Garrett (G); juniors Micala Feldi (F), Jadyn Henderson (F) and Joi Thornton (G).
What you need to know: The Yellowjackets are in their second year under coach Kevin Florent, who says he has "a new team with many new players," that will be continuing its "rebuilding process."
Of the 10 players on the roster, only three are seniors. Of that elder group, Bri Garrett serves as one of the team's three captains — joined by Joi Thornton and Jadyn Henderson.
The strength of this group is undoubtedly its guard play, headlined by the scoring abilities of Thornton. Already this season, the junior guard scored a game-high 13 points in a 25-17 Chapelgate victory over Southern Maryland Christian Academy.
Big picture in the IAAM C Conference, there is just one division this year. Last winter, Bryn Mawr won the X Division with a league record of 13-2 and Catholic won the Y Division with a record of 11-3. Chapelgate won just two league games a season ago — beating Concordia Prep and Friends.
2017-18 record: 3-9 IAAM B, 3-12
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Coach: William Harper, third year
Top players: Seniors Taylor Denny (G) and Taylor Gillis (G); sophomores Ashlyn Bender (G) and Caroline Haynes (G).
What you need to know: With a solid balance between senior leadership and a group of talented sophomores, the pieces are in place for a rebound season this winter for the Dragons.
Denny and Gillis are four-year starters at guard and were each part of the squad that made it to the 2016 IAAM C Conference championship game. They both are proven double-digit scorers. Two other potential senior starters, though — Olivia O'Leary and Shaylan Ahearn — are sidelined this winter with injuries.
But that missing production opens the door for potential breakout campaigns from sophomores Caroline Haynes and Ashlyn Bender, who have each improved greatly in the offseason.
Overall in the B Conference, the door is open for a new champion after last year's top two teams — St. John's Catholic Prep and the Institute of Notre Dame — have both moved to the A Conference.
Reach Brent Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports