At first glance, it's easy to see what's missing from Howard County boys basketball this winter.
Last year's top two teams — Oakland Mills and Hammond — return a combined one starter. Six of the top seven county scorers from last winter and all seven first-team all-county performers are no longer with their respective teams. And, of the top eight teams in last year's final county standings, only one brings back its starting point guard.
But for all the player turnover, it's something that remains the same that has almost every area coach anticipating one of the most competitive years in quite some time.
"Sure, in terms of players, the big time names aren't there like we've had the past few years, but what you do have is coaching. And in Howard County, these coaches have been around and they know what they're doing," said River Hill coach Matt Graves, who is one of 10 returning public school coaches in the area. "I don't think this is going to be nearly as 'down' of a year as some people on the outside might be anticipating.
"Now it might take a little longer for some teams to get going, but come February just watch — these coaches are going to have their kids running their stuff and there are going to be five or six teams playing some very good basketball."
As Atholton coach Jared Albert points out, the door is simply open for a new crop of stars to emerge.
"Turnover is part of the high school game and you are going to have years like this where a large group of talented kids graduate. But history shows, there's always that next group waiting in the wings," he said. "The fun part is seeing who steps up and which teams gel together and separate themselves. This is probably going to be one of the more competitive years in the county since I've been here and it's likely going to be a traffic jam early. Almost everyone has a shot, so that's exciting."
When it comes to sorting through the prospective contenders, one would be prudent to use recent history as a starting point. Centennial has been among the top four in the final county standings each of the last six years, winning a county and state title as recently as the 2014-15 season.
The Eagles, who were third last year with a 13-6 league record and made it to the region title game, bring back regular starters Elijah White and Andrew Hohmann to go along with four other guys who have varsity experience. First-team all-county performer Tom Brown has graduated, but the principles that have made the program a consistent contender remain in tact.
"We pretty much know that the standard has been set high by the previous teams and it's just coming out here and continuing to do what coach says has been working for us," said White, who was a second-team all-county player as a junior last winter. "I think this [year's team] is going to be a lot of the same as last year — a lot of competitive players that know the game."
Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel says this year's group may actually be further along at this point than last season's squad was at the same time during the preseason.
"There are some new varsity faces, but we have only one kid who is in his first year with the program. And that's where our continuity between our varsity and JV programs benefits us. These guys are coming in ready to go," Hollwedel said.
Oakland Mills, which won last year's county championship, is the only other county squad that can rival Centennial's recent string of consistent success. In fact, if you throw out the 2011-12 campaign where the team finished below .500, the Scorpions have been downright dominant by finishing in first or second place six of the last seven years.
The issue this year is that Oakland Mills has a completely different look. Between graduation and departures from the program, the Scorpions return only five players who accounted for a combined 159 points a season ago — less than 10 percent of the production from what was the county's top offense.
Coach Jon Browne says the blank slate, though, is an exciting challenge.
"It's very different, a fresh start … and that's not always a bad thing," he said. "We were expected to win every single game we played last year and now this year there is no pressure. We have to learn to play together, learn to win. But no one is really expecting anything from us and that should allow these guys to go out there a little looser and focus on just getting better every day."
Hammond was a close second in last year's final standings, finishing 17-2 in league play — the highest mark since the program won the county in 2009-10. The Golden Bears, however, are in the same boat as Oakland Mills in that they lost the bulk of their rotation. Only Ryan Ridgell (5.9 points a game) returns with consistent starting experience.
"This is one of the youngest varsity teams that I have had, but they are also one of the hardest working teams I have had," said Hammond coach Michael Salapata, who also brings back junior Robert Gordon as someone who saw significant minutes last year.
That leaves the top spots truly up for grabs and there's a lengthy list of teams seemingly ready to make a run at them.
Long Reach was fifth in the county last year and returns arguably the county's top individual player in junior Tre Morgan. The Lightning forward averaged 14.6 points and 9.9 rebounds a game last winter, ranking him top six in the league in both categories, on his way to being named second-team all-county.
Morgan will combine with junior Chad Brown to provide a teriffic one-two punch for Long Reach, which is a team with just one senior.
Glenelg was last year's surprise team on the way to fourth place. The return of guys like Tommy Walsh and Jeffrey Powell make the Gladiators very dangerous once again.
Then there's teams like Reservoir, Wilde Lake and River Hill that all finished below .500 a season ago, but have been getting preseason buzz as potential sleepers. Judge Payne from Reservoir, a second-team all-county selection as a junior last year, and Wilde Lake sophomore Trea Keys are two of the quickest and dynamic guards in the area.
"At this point, honestly, everything seems to be really up in the air," Glenelg coach David Evans said. "I think you kind of have an idea of which teams, based on their history — like Centennial — who you know are going to be there. But beyond that all I know is that you better come prepared every single game. These coaches in Howard County, they seem to always have a few tricks up their sleeve."
Between the 12 public schools and two privates, only Long Reach and Marriotts Ridge feature new head coaches this year.
Andrew Lazzor takes over the Lightning program for Al Moraz Jr., who had spent more than a decade leading the team and helped guide it to a state championship in 2006. Lazzor does bring with him plenty of coaching experience and he's worked in the school at Long Reach for the last couple years. During that time, he worked as an assistant at St. Mary's College of Maryland and before that he spent six years as a head coach at North County High in Anne Arundel County.
Over at Marriotts Ridge, Timothy Brady takes over for Dave Appleby. Brady is familiar with the program, having served as junior varsity coach for the boys the last two seasons. He also was JV girls basketball coach for the Mustangs during the 2013-14 season.
Brady will be trying to turn around a Marriotts Ridge program that hasn't had a winning record since the 2012-13 season.
County championship race
There have been some major changes to the regular season schedule for the public schools.
Instead of the 19 county games that each school has played in the past, now everyone will play only 16 league contests. And, of those games, only 11 — one against each team — will county toward the county championship race.
"The county has been divided into two divisions, big schools and small schools. You play the other five teams in your division twice and then each of the six teams in the other division once," Browne said. "Essentially the first time you play the teams in your division, it's a non-county county game. Then the second time counts toward the county championship race.
"It's definitely different, but as far as I'm concerned it doesn't change all that much in terms of preparation or how we're going to approach anything."
One division features Atholton, Centennial, Howard, Long Reach, Mt. Hebron and Reservoir. The other division has Glenelg, Hammond, Marriotts Ridge, Oakland Mills, River Hill and Wilde Lake.
The change also allows for a couple extra true non-county games. Two contests will come against Anne Arundel County teams as part of a pair of play days involving all 12 county squads during the month of December. There are then two other non-league games available to be scheduled in addition to the usual Holiday Tournament games.
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Over the past couple years Glenelg Country has been making a steady climb up the MIAA A Conference standings. And, with a large contingent returning from last season's squad that won 11 league games and made it to the conference tournament semifinals, the Dragons have even bigger goals this winter.
The team has three seniors — Isaiah Burnett (Naval Academy), Jalen Gabbidon (Yale) and Anthony Longpre (St. Joseph's) — that are already signed to play Division I basketball next year. Gabbidon is a transfer into the program from Harrisburg Academy and is a multi-dimensional wing that can score in a number of different ways.
The team also has a dynamic guard back in the fold with the presence of C.J. Wilson, who averaged nearly nine points a game last year as a junior.
The A Conference is stacked this winter, featuring seven teams ranked in the Baltimore Sun preseason poll, but Glenelg Country certainly figures to be in the mix.
Chapelgate figures to be extremely competitive as well in the MIAA B Conference. The team features sophomore big man Jason Murphy, who is already drawing significant Division I interest, to go along with a handful of dynamic guards.
The Yellowjackets finished 7-11 in league competition a year ago, but have the pieces to improve upon that mark.