Severna Park girls soccer coach Joyce Stefancik likes the view from the top. She's grown accustomed to it in recent years.
But will her vantage point be lowered this fall? The two-time defending state 4A-3A champions, unbeaten in their last 32 games, see more teams than ever with a realistic chance of bumping them from the pinnacle. One of the challengers, Old Mill, visits the Falcons tomorrow.
Patriots coach Bruce Sponsler says, "Don't let anyone fool you. Severna Park still is the team to beat."
Chesapeake coach Lin Sullivan adds, "So far, Severna Park looks unbeatable. But if someone does beat them, hopefully we're there to see it."
Can anyone knock off the Falcons this year? Oakland Mills came close Tuesday, losing 2-1 in overtime.
Meanwhile, a South River team loaded with experience and talent appears the elite of the small 3A-2A League.
The following is a glimpse at the public school entries.
4A League Severna Park lost one All-American, but welcomes back another. Unfortunately, she graduated in 1986.
Colleen Corwell, who had a record-setting career at the College of William and Mary, has returned to Severna Park as an assistant to Stefancik. If only she were eligible to help fill the shoes of the many talented players who have departed -- some of the finest athletes ever to play soccer in Maryland.
Halfbacks Betsy Elder (All-American) and Erika Mawhorr (All-Metro) have moved on to college. So, too, has All-County sweeper Gina Roberts, the stalwart of a defense that allowed only three goals last season.
"We lost a wealth of talent," Stefancik said. "They played a big part in contributing to the state championship."
The same is true of keeper Tami Riley and her twin sister, stopper Tina Riley. Both return this year, as does striker Betsy Anderson, among last year's top scorers in the county.
Of Tami Riley, Stefancik said, "I feel she's the best in the state. Just look at her stats."
Riley has permitted nine goals in the past two seasons, while recording 23 shutouts. Also back are Lisa and Michelle Cope -- a fullback and striker, respectively -- and sweeper Ellen Westcoat, who must replace Roberts.
The Falcons' roster contains four freshmen, including starting fullback Carrie Budzinski.
"The kids are just getting accustomed to things," she said. "It takes time to gel as a team."
At Broadneck, David Lord is taking the same wait-and-see approach. The Bruins are a "completely different team" after graduation took All-Metro selection Betsy Given, wing Suzanne Driver, midfielder Keri Lord and sweeper Paula Prisco, among others.
"We lost 12 seniors from last year," Lord said, "so we're real young."
Five starters return, including junior midfielder Ava Tasker, a striker last season who Lord considers "the best in the county," senior midfielder Meredith Huffines and junior All-County stopper Dawn Frederick.
Like Severna Park, the Bruins sport four freshmen, including striker Amy Adams, who is "one to watch."
All eyes will be on junior keeper Holly Mowry, who took over the position full time during the second half of the 1989 season.
"The kids have to grow up quickly," Lord said. "I'm not crying about not having a lot of talented players. We just can't go 15-16 deep. But it will be fun."
Old Mill's Sponsler begins his quest to return to the playoffs after a heart-breaking, 1-0 shootout loss to Franklin of Baltimore County in the 4A-3A Region II finals.
After opening against Severna Park tomorrow, the Patriots must confront another tough league rival, Chesapeake, on Tuesday.
"We start our season with five tough games in a row," Sponsler said. "By the fifth game, we'll know where we stand."
The fifth-year coach has been pleased with his team's preseason workouts, citing juniors Amy Drapolski (goalie), Jen Bostak (fullback), Amy Tolley (striker) and midfielder Terri Bogle as key players.
"I've been encouraged by our work habits, and our skills have been improving as well," he said.
Chesapeake is expected to be a force again, according to most coaches in the county 4A league. With senior midfield co-captains Julie Smith and Diane McBee returning, Sullivan hopes his squad will stop playing the role of bridesmaid.
"We've been considered in the 'best of the rest' category for years," he said. "But this year, I think we have the talent to play with everyone in the county."
Sullivan's optimism is heightened by the presence of right wing Becky Thiele and fullbacks Stacy Grokas, Allison Nathan and Diana Castle.
At North County, second-team All-County midfielder Martha Hill is one of 14 varsity veterans.
The Knights also have a proven winner in coach Marianne Shultz, who last season led her Brooklyn Park team to its best season in 12 years (8-4-1) and a 2A-1A playoff berth.
"I think we have the players who will make us competitive," she said. "Angela Farace was one of the leading scorers in the county last year, and (goalie) Lisa Garrison went to camp this summer to work on her game. We'll be a thorn in the side to a lot of teams."
Junior stopper Tonya Kolodziejski and senior midfielder Stephanie Myer also rank high on Shultz's list of players to watch.
"Tonya has looked really good in the transition from defense to offense, and Stephanie has good instincts and is quick to the ball," she said.
Annapolis' 10-year coach Richard King is hoping 1990 will be "The Year of the Panther."
The program hasn't produced a winning season through the past decade, but King doesn't expect that unsightly trend to continue.
"They've had a great attitude thus far, and they seem very optimistic," he said of his team, which finished 5-7 last season. "In the past, they seemed to have already given up before the season even got started, but this year has been different."
The Panthers' defense is formidable, but King hasn't found anyone to emerge as an everyday scorer. He will rely heavily on returning striker Kirstin Chiari and newcomer Cory Harmon to put the ball in the net.
"Kirstin is fast and quick, and Cory has excellent crossing ability," King said. "We only scored 15 goals all of last year and when you only play 12 (games), it's hard to win."
Annapolis' top scorer last season, Mandy Neall, returns to the Panther lineup. Only this year, she will help anchor the defense.
"I moved her to stopper because of her speed," King said. "We will rely on strength of defense to win games and keep us in the close ones. Don't worry about us blowing anyone out."
Arundel coach Greg Helms, after turning in a 1-6-4 record last year, is hoping his Wildcats will gain some respect this season.
Arundel returns seven starters, and Helms said he is encouraged by the growth and attitude of his players.
"One thing we've been stressing this year is to play each game as if it is their last," he said. "We have a reasonable amount of depth, so we keep reminding them to go as hard as they can while they're on the field."
Michelle Harrison is back in goal after a rough sophomore year. Helms believes she learned a valuable lesson under fire last season.
"She's always had the physical tools," he said, "but she's now beginning to understand the position."
Harrison will be supported defensively by fullback Amy Curran, who Helms describes as the "backbone of the defense."
Meade coach John O'Neill calls 1990 "a rebuilding year."
Second-team All-County striker Amanda Simmons returns for her junior season to give the Mustangs a consistent scoring threat.
Last week, some serious questions remained concerning who would inherit the vacant goalkeeping position. Enter sophomore transfer and native Californian Tere Cooper.
"She's only a sophomore, so we've got a couple of years to work with her," O'Neill said. "She's got a lot to learn, but she already knows some of the basics of the position, having played three years of community soccer in California."
At Glen Burnie, the goalie spot is the one position where the team is solid, with senior All-County selection Kim Myers back from a 188-save season.
First-year coach Rob Alberico finally will enjoy the luxury of a junior varsity feeder program, something Glen Burnie has lacked for years.
"Having a JV may not produce immediate results," he said, "but it'll help us a great deal during the future."
Fall must be nearing. Jim Shuck is excited about his South River team.
And with good reason. Senior striker Rachael Pearce is back after missing most of last season with a broken leg. And junior wing Tracy Zettle is ready to run after being sidelined with a broken toe -- one game after Pearce's mishap.
"Injuries just devastated us. It was a mixed-up season," Shuck said of the 5-6-1 campaign, further complicated when various Seahawks had to play out of position.
The shuffling may have paid off, however. Senior Lisa Kerr was moved to stopper late in the year and will start there this season. And Diana Niland, then a freshman, replaced Julie Collison in the nets after the latter was forced to assume Pearce's role. She was given a rude introduction, losing 10-0 to Severna Park, but eventually gained the confidence of her coach.
"She looks real strong," Shuck said. "She may be as good as the top keepers in the county. She has great moves."
And a bad right knee, though not serious enough to keep her out of the lineup.
South River has an abundance of returning players, including halfbacks Christy Dunbar -- a sweeper last year -- and Angie Quick, and defender Bea Ulrich.
"This is the deepest team I've ever had," said Shuck, entering his fourth season. "I can go to six, seven or even eight girls and not feel too uncomfortable. I have experience out there now -- playing experience."
Could the departure of Southern halfback Kelly Archambo, the team's leading scorer last fall, actually turn into a positive? Probably not, but Coach Peter Chow always can hope.
"With last year's team, everyone counted on Kelly to do it all," he said. "The entire offense was more centered toward Kelly. But this year, with Kelly gone, the offense should be more evenly distributed. Hopefully, it'll be spread out and the responsibility of the offense won't be put on one person."
That's a relief to senior forwards Amy Gamble and Marya Montgomery and junior halfbacks Vicky Prince and Lindee Sisk. Sisk is back after missing most of last season with a broken ankle.
"She's probably not the best-skilled player, but she's the best athlete," Chow said. "She covers a lot of ground."
Sophomore keeper Nicole Gregory better do likewise.
Gregory is "good and improving," Chow said, "but she's really not going to get better until she gets more game experience."
The first ball hadn't even been kicked in anger, and Northeast already was in a hole.
Starting fullback Stephanie Lazor injured her knee during the softball team's state final game and will be lost for the season. Coupled with the graduation of keeper Crissy Sisk -- now swatting away shots at Anne Arundel Community College -- the Eagles' defense must rebuild.
Northeast's top returning player is Michelle Yingling, a senior wing and the team's leading scorer last year with eight goals.
"I'm optimistic about winning six games," said second-year coach Grafton Ray. "I think we have the talent to do that. The girls just have to work."
Staff writer Steven Kivinski contributed to this story.