Mt. Hebron isn't shy about admitting that the expectations and goals for this spring are as high as they have ever been.
The team, coming off a 17-5 season, has been one of the area's most successful programs over the last four years, finishing among the top four in the Howard County standings each spring during that span and making the state semifinals in 2014. Yet, for all the success, this year's Vikings squad knows that the potential is there to take things even further.
"We've definitely paid our dues and it (feels like) our time," said senior Evvie Buehlman, who is a three-time first-team all-county player. "Ever since me, Rachel (Cadigan) and Stephanie (Bluhm's) freshmen year, that's kind of when our school really got into the top softball teams in the state. Ever since then we've been working really hard and we've gotten to the big games now.
"We've taken the hard losses, and those hard losses are what has made us as players and us as a team stronger."
Last year, Mt. Hebron fell one run short of returning to the 3A state semifinals — dropping a heartbreaker in walk-off fashion against River Hill.
Buehlman is one of three seniors — joined by Bluhm and Cadigan — who have been contributors on varsity since they were freshmen and are determined to put that defeat in the past.
Throw in junior Rylee Kinsella, who joined Buehlman and Cadigan on all-county a season ago, and the experience is certainly there for something special. But just as important, as coach Chuck Struhar points out, is how quickly the team can get its underclassmen up to speed and ready to contribute in big roles.
"No doubt about it, we have some great experience and they are going to lead us, but we also have some young players we are going to ask to really step up," Struhar said. "One of things I tell the new girls all the time is that we have a standard and we're not coming down to meet them, they have to come up to that level.
"We are going to ask a lot of them, but they wouldn't be up here if I didn't think they were capable of contributing."
While county coaches almost unanimously list Mt. Hebron as one of the favorites coming into the year, the fact remains that the traditional powerhouses figure to once again be in the mix as well.
Howard and Glenelg have combined to win five of the last six county championships, with River Hill breaking through into the top spot with a senior-laden team last spring. The Hawks will have an entirely different look this year, bringing back just one starter, but the program has made huge strides in the past few years.
Elsewhere, Centennial and Reservoir have established themselves as up-and-coming programs, both finishing at 11-6 in county play in 2015.
The wild card for many appears to be the wealth of new faces that are being thrust into prominent roles. A number of different factors — ranging from graduation to injuries — have resulted in only nine of the 30 players that made first- or second-team all-county a year ago returning.
"The senior class across the county was a strong group last year," Wilde Lake coach Tee Dronenburg said. "Just about every school graduated a lot of talented girls. So it will be an interesting year to see which school has younger girls who step up and really come into their own."
For Centennial coach Katie Grimm, who returns senior Emily Allen — a first-team all-county selection as a junior —as one of three captains, she says consistency is going to be the name of the game. She also points out that pitching appears to be at a premium across the board for the first time in several seasons.
"My outlook on the county is that there really are very few dominant pitchers, contrary to a few years ago when several teams had at least one ace," Grimm said. "Pitching is what usually sets the tone for the county. So, while you have some good teams, I feel like the county championship is pretty wide open. You have to keep that consistency through the daily grind of games and practices, so when you get to those big games that are one- or two-run games, you are ready and confident.
"The team that wins the county is going to be the one that is the most poised in those close games and pitching definitely plays a role in that."
Buehlman and Howard's Jamie Bahrijzuk are both pitchers on top teams that made all-county a season ago. But overall, most of the individuals around the area being asked to be top performers in the circle have a less proven track record.
That doesn't mean there isn't intriguing talent in other areas of the field, however. Carly Clarke, a speedy first-team outfielder, will be leading the way for Reservoir.
And there's also a trio of second-team performers from last spring — Isa Carunungan (Long Reach), Jordan Stepke (Marriotts Ridge) and Miranda Thompson (Atholton) — that will be trying to help their respective teams move up in the standings after finishing below .500 in 2015.
There is only one new coach in the county, with Ed Holshue taking over at Atholton for Bobby Baxter. Holshue, who has a storied coaching career, was most recently the varsity softball coach at Howard in 2008 and 2009 and at Centennial in 2011.
He inherits a Raiders squad that has the talent to improve on its eighth-place finish in the county a year ago.
"We are a quality team in some spots, but really inexperienced otherwise, so we are looking to get better every day," Holshue said.
In the private school arena, Chapelgate is coming off a season where it won 11 games overall and made an appearance in the IAAM B Conference championship game. The team lost a couple of standouts in Bethanne Venkatesan and Phoebe Cleaver, but does have some talented players filling in the gaps.
Coach John Isaac says he's particularly enthusiastic about his line-up, which includes established performers in catcher Jen Wolinski and center fielder Lydia Martin.
"In the IAAM B Conference, I think we will score a lot of runs because we are deep 1-7," Isaac said. "Our seven hitters would be other team's middle of the line-up (hitters)."
Chapelgate has already kicked off its season with three straight wins, beating Notre Dame Prep, Mount Carmel and Garrison Forest.
The public schools don't begin official games until March 21. Like in previous years, a District V showcase event is scheduled for the first Saturday of the year, March 26, at the Bachman Sports Complex. All 12 public schools are scheduled to be in attendance and square off against an Anne Arundel County team.
With the season about to start for public schools and Chapelgate already underway, we are releasing team-by-team breakdowns leading up to openind day on Monday.